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Mike Lopresti | | March 20, 2022

Saint Peter's comes out on top after going through the Bluegrass gauntlet

Murray St. Racers vs. Saint Peter's Peacocks - Condensed Game

INDIANAPOLIS — Behold the mission of Saint Peter’s, the little school that could:

This week, the commonwealth of Kentucky. Next week, the world?

Or as coach Shaheen Holloway noted . . .

“I got guys from New Jersey and New York City. You think we’re scared of anything? You think we’re worried about guys trying to muscle us and tough us out? We do that. That’s who we are.”

😱 BRACKETS: Here's how many brackets somehow picked No. 15 Saint Peter's to make the Sweet 16

The fearless and remarkable Peacocks passed the Bluegrass crying towel from Kentucky to Murray State Saturday night, 70-60. Now who’s next? Purdue in the Sweet 16 maybe? That would be ironic. Saint Peter’s hadn’t been in the NCAA tournament in 11 years, and know who showed the Peacocks the first-round door back in 2011? Right, Purdue. But that’s for next week. Right now, the job is to figure out what the heck just happened in Indianapolis.

How does a school with an enrollment of 2,637 take down one of the bluebloods of all bluebloods one night, and two days later sends the nation’s best record out of the tournament?

How does a team manage that with Thursday’s hero of the hour — Daryl Banks III, who shredded Kentucky for 27 points — getting one field goal?

How does a program with 11 defeats this season, having to fight for its life to get out of the MAAC tournament, show up in the Sweet 16 — something Baylor, Kentucky or Tennessee couldn’t do?

How, among all the big-name assembled here, did Saturday night end in Gainbridge Fieldhouse with Holloway hugging his kids in total joy, and a teal Peacock mascot dancing on the floor?

Holloway pondered that question on the way back to his locker room. “It still hasn’t hit me yet. I’m still into last week, winning the MAAC championship. It’s been a whirlwind,” he said. “What I can tell you is this: We came down here on a mission. We weren’t going to be intimidated. We thought we were going to win two games, and we did.

“I like to recruit guys that have something to prove, that have a chip on their shoulder, that are tough. Because you have to be tough to play for me.”

Oh, and one other factor. The little boy walking next to him along the corridors of Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

“We lost one game this year when he was at the game,” Holloway said of his son. “He’s my associate head coach.”

MORE BRACKETS: Check out the interactive bracket

First, the facts. Murray State was 31-2, best record in the land. Didn’t matter.

Banks, who Kentucky couldn’t stop, had only six points. Didn’t matter.

History says this doesn’t happen very often, for a No. 15 seed to win two games in the NCAA tournament. Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 and Oral Roberts last March. That’s it. Didn’t matter. And neither of them had to stare down Kentucky in front of thousands of screaming Big Blue Nation citizens, and then a Murray State team whose last loss was before Christmas.

“Everybody keeps saying we can’t do this, we can’t do that, we don’t have this, and we don’t have that,” Holloway said. “We got heart. That’s what matters.”

So does the way the Peacocks’ defense. Murray State shot under 35 percent and was outscored 15-4 in points off turnovers. Not the usual numbers of a 21-game winning streak. The Racers scored 36 points in the paint to beat San Francisco Thursday, only 20 Saturday. “A very tough and physical team,”  Murray State coach Matt McMahon said. “They made it difficult for us to score in the paint and they deserve the credit for that.”

For Saint Peter’s offense, KC Ndefo had 17 points to go with 10 rebounds. Doug Edert came off the bench to hit more big shots and free throws as he did against Kentucky. Banks had some foul trouble and was 1-for-7.

Since hardly anyone had a clue about this team 72 hours ago, Holloway had a brief orientation for the media about his team’s intentions on the defensive end of the court.

“That’s what we do all year. Y’all hear me? This is who this team is. This is a defensive team.

“My thing is this. It’s a give-and-take thing.  If you give me hard work on defense, I’ll let you play offense. You don’t come out of the game playing for me for making mistakes on offense. You come out of the game for making mistakes on defense. That’s just how it is.

“This is why we came into this tournament with a seven-game winning streak, because these guys understand that playing defense wins championships. These guys bought in, and the rest is history.”

UPSETS: We're tracking every upset in the NCAA men's tournament

To get the idea across clearly to his Peacocks, Saint Peter’s practices are not for the squeamish.

“What I put these guys through during the year, playing the game is easy,” Holloway said, and then recalled his renowned Seton Hall days as an athlete. “That’s how I played, right? I played to give it 110 percent all the time. I was a decent player. I’m small, people counted me out, so I had something to prove every time. So I coach that way.”

One of his players, Matthew Lee, concurred about the practices. “It’s vigorous.”

Vigorous? “What makes our practices hard, not so much what we do, he expects a lot out of us. He puts us through drills and stuff like that to have us go 100 percent. We have a lot of hard-nosed, scrappy under-rated players. So we give it 100 percent, and the game comes easy to us.”

Easier than it did to Kentucky and Murray State, certainly. They ran guys not afraid to mix it up and bang bodies with anyone. As their coach often mentions, that’s who they are, and look where it has gotten them. Just imagine Cinderella with brass knuckles

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