PHILADELPHIA — Amid pulling one of the most audacious upsets in NCAA tournament history, the most demonstrative celebration from Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway didn’t come in the postgame scrum or the locker room bracket advancement.
It came after a Saint Peter’s possession that ultimately defined the Peacocks’ historic upset on Friday night. As No. 15 Saint Peter’s built toward the crescendo of an axis-shifting 67-64 victory over No. 3 Purdue, they held the Boilermakers to a shot-clock violation early in the second half.
Holloway celebrated with a fist pump so violent that he pirouetted on the sideline, the torque prompted by the adrenaline shot of joy that accompanies a perfect defensive possession. That twirl symbolized just how Saint Peter’s authored a Sweet 16 upset that featured no star player or singular moment, but rather the collective will of 10 indomitable players who stared down NCAA tournament history and never blinked.
“That’s who we are,” Holloway told ESPN late Friday night. “That’s what units us. Not hitting a 3-pointer. That’s what gets our team going. Once that happened, we have to get everyone excited about doing that. Then we get another one, and another one.”
The Peacocks have been doing just that with NCAA tournament games, winning one after another after another. By outlasting Purdue in front of a frenetic crowd at Wells Fargo Arena on Friday night, they established a new historical standard for underdogs’ success in the NCAA tournament. And they did it with a distinct defensive twist.
Saint Peter’s became the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, channeling their unflinching coach. Holloway’s resting sideline face is a snarl that seemingly demands effort and intensity.
To put the improbability of Saint Peter’s victory in historical context, consider that no team ranked No. 13 or No. 14 and just two No. 12 seeds have advanced to the Elite Eight — Missouri in 2002 and Oregon State last year.
A 13-point underdog on Friday, Saint Peter’s also was an 18.5-point underdog against Kentucky in the first round, making the Peacocks the only team to win multiple games as a double-digit underdog in an NCAA tournament since it expanded in 1985, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. They were 8-point underdogs against Murray State in Round 2.
Over eight decades, hundreds of teams and thousands of NCAA tournament games, Saint Peter’s run has reset the standard for upset runs.
“We’re making history and we look forward to making more history,” said Peacocks guard Doug Edert, who scored seven of his 10 points from the free throw line.
That next potential historical marker comes Sunday against No. 8 North Carolina, which beat No. 4 UCLA 71-66 on Friday night. Considering the Peacocks have topped No. 2 Kentucky, No. 7 Murray State and No. 3 Purdue amid their rollicking run, they certainly won’t be intimidated by the latest gaudy logo in the bracket.
The aura of the upset might best be illustrated by just how dazed Boilermakers players were in the wake of the loss. As the final Saint Peter’s staff members walked onto the team bus in the chilly Philadelphia night, Purdue center Zach Edey wandered around the parking lot by himself, with no teammates or Boilermaker staffers in sight.
Purdue’s last Final Four was 1980, and this marked the program’s fourth Sweet 16 in five years. It also marked another squandered opportunity. That came through in the reactions of Boilermakers players after the game.
Purdue missed its first 10 3-pointers in the second half, turned the ball over 15 times and went nearly five minutes without scoring a field goal late in the second half, part of which came from struggles against Saint Peter’s zone.
“I’m honestly still in shock,” Purdue senior center Trevion Williams said. “It just doesn’t feel real.”
“Honestly, like, my mind is blank right now,” said senior Sasha Stefanovic.
“It eats at you, man,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said.
He added: “These guys won 29 games and then you feel awful.”
Saint Peter’s had three scorers in double figures, led by Daryl Banks’ 14 points. The Peacocks went 10 deep, with forward Clarence Rupert scoring both 11 points and absorbing post body blows from the 7-foot-4 Edey and the 255-pound Williams.
The late turning point came when the Peacocks switched to a 2-3 matchup zone with nearly four minutes remaining. They’d just run a crisp offensive set that resulted in Edert drawing a foul off a double screen and converting three free throws to pull Saint Peter’s within one.
Purdue looked flummoxed by zone on the next possession but still managed a Williams free throw. From there, the Boilermakers’ offense unraveled. They ended up going without a field goal from the 5:18 mark to the 25-second mark, and even that came on a putback by Mason Gillis.
Along the way, there was another near-perfect defensive possession that finished with a feeble 3-point attempt by Purdue star Jaden Ivey as the shot clock expired. Ivey finished just 4-for-12 for nine points, including 1-for-6 from 3-point range.
Over that stretch, Purdue’s offense stagnated and Holloway’s adjustment allowed Saint Peter’s to race ahead. Saint Peter’s went 11-for-11 from the free throw line over the final 4:02 and 17-for-18 in the second half.
“You’d think a No. 15 seed that wins a game would get rattled,” Saint Peter’s athletic director Rachelle Paul said. “But that’s a direct reflection of coach [Holloway].”
Paul pointed out that Saint Peter’s has “turned into America’s team” almost overnight, and he doesn’t appear particularly eager to give up that spot.
Holloway has consistently deflected the attention and credit to his players, as he declined to make an opening statement in the news conference after the game. Twenty-two years ago, as a Seton Hall player, Holloway suffered an ankle injury in the second round of the NCAA tournament and couldn’t play in Seton Hall’s Sweet 16 game.
When asked about the karmic rebound of seizing his tournament opportunity 22 years later, Holloway paused for a second and deflected to his players.
“These guys, man,” he told ESPN. “A bunch of kids that no one really wanted and thought they couldn’t play. This is unbelievable. I couldn’t be happy for them.”
The latest chance to make history awaits on Sunday.