INDIANAPOLIS — Why not?
Shaheen Holloway told his Saint Peter’s players to pack enough clothes to last through Sunday.
“Not a lot of people believed that we could come out here and do what we’re doing,” Holloway said before the Peacocks’ NCAA Tournament second-round game against Murray State on Saturday night, two days after Saint Peter’s rocked the tournament with a shocking first-round bracket upset of Kentucky. “We came out here packed ready for Sunday. We said we were leaving on Sunday with two wins.”
And so they have, the No. 15-seed Peacocks powered on with their March Madness magic carpet ride, upsetting seventh-seeded Murray State, 70-60, before a crowd sellout of 17,838 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse to advance to the Sweet 16 in the East Region.
You read that correctly: The Sweet 16.
It has been that kind of March for this rag-tag group of chip-on-their-shoulder players from the tiny Jersey City school of just 2,672 undergrads, which entered the tournament having never won an NCAA game in three tries.
Only twice before had a 15th seed reached the Sweet 16 — Florida Gulf Coast in 2013 and Oral Roberts last year. Saint Peter’s is the third.
How did Saint Peter’s (21-11), an eight-point underdog to Murray State (31-3) after being an 18-point dog against Kentucky, do it?
With grit, physicality, fearlessness and a toughness that Murray State never imagined it would have to deal with for 40 minutes. The Peacocks played the Racers as if they were in a street fight, and looked beautifully comfortable doing so.
When it was over, when Saint Peter’s had grabbed the last rebound of the game, the Murray State players simply walked the other way off the court as Peacocks guard Doug Edert bled the clock to 00.
The Murray State players left the floor looking as if they had no idea what hit them.
The beauty of what Saint Peter’s pulled off Saturday night — other than the final result — was how it got to the final result. The Peacocks defeated the Racers in a completely different way than they defeated Kentucky.
The Peacocks hurt the Wildcats with its outside shooting. Daryl Banks III scored 27 points, 16 of which came in the first half in that game. Edert came off the bench and scored 20.
Against Murray State, Banks had six points and Edert had 13, fewer 28 combined points than the 47 they scored against Kentucky.
At halftime Saturday, Saint Peter’s had a 32-27 lead, while Banks and Edert had three points apiece. Saint Peter’s was only 1-for-6 from 3-point range. Murray State did a terrific job on Edert and Banks, allowing Banks only two attempts from long distance, while Edert, who simply never got a look, had none.
This game was about banging with the larger Racers in the paint. This game was about the Peacocks’ big man, KC Ndefo, who scored 11 points in the first half and finished with 17 points.
This game was about the Saint Peter’s defense holding Murray State to 32.1 percent shooting in the first half, two days after it held Kentucky to 28 percent in the second half.
Murray State star KJ Williams, who entered the game averaging 19.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, was neutralized in the first 20 minutes, scoring only six points and adding just two rebounds. He finished with a quiet 12 points and three rebounds.
This was as eye-opening as the win over Kentucky when you consider that Murray State entered the game with the best record in the nation while riding a 21-game winning streak that began Dec. 22. So, this was Murray State’s first loss of 2022.
“I think they’re fantastic,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon said of Saint Peter’s before the game. “You see they take on Coach Holloway’s personality. They’re tough. They guard you for 40 minutes. Really elite defensively.
“I think the reason they’re here in the round of 32, if you look over this eight-game winning streak, they’ve continued to get better at the offensive end of the floor. Their top player’s production has increased over the last five games compared to the early parts of the season.
“The performance yesterday from Banks and Edert, just phenomenal, the shot making, the ability to create off ball screens, they are a really good team. As we all know in college basketball, the goal is to be playing your best basketball in March, and they’re certainly doing that.”
Saint Peter’s came out of the halftime locker room and did everything it could deliver the knockout punch with an 8-0 run. Murray State showed it had a chin, though, fighting its way back into the game and getting as close as 59-57 with four minutes remaining.
But Saint Peter’s showed remarkable poise and held on.
Saint Peter’s led for 14:17 of the first half and never trailed.
Now the Peacocks will go to Philadelphia to play on Friday in the Sweet 16 as the darlings of this NCAA Tournament.