BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo credit: Scott Taetsch/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
We laughed. We cried. We enjoyed everything Saint Peter’s offered the last two weeks.
A No. 15 team seed playing for the right to go to the Final Four in an Elite Eight game is something that never happens in college basketball. A mid-major team showing grit, determination and resilience to beat Kentucky, Murray State and Purdue to get to the Elite Eight while capturing everyone’s imagination. A team that became the talk of the town here. A team that turned out to be the national story.
So when North Carolina denied Saint Peter’s of going to the Final Four with a 69-49 blowout victory on Sunday at Wells Fargo Center, it felt like a big thud. It was sobering seeing this all come to an end. Seeing folks leaving Bello’s (a sports bar in Newark where I watched the game) at halftime put a shock in the system.
To see this come to an end is hard to accept. It provided a reminder reality trumps fantasy in sports. It’s a painful reminder once again why a Cinderella team will likely never win a national championship. All the luck runs out in the end.
In the end, the well was empty for the Peacocks. They maximized their speed, grit, toughness, resilience, smarts, togetherness and composure in being resourceful to win the MAAC Tournament and three games in the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina took advantage of a fatigued Saint Peter’s by using its athleticism and size.
When Doug Edert struggled as he did in the East Regional final, you knew it was not the Peacocks’ day.
It was over when Daryl Banks III couldn’t finish off a dunk when the Tarheels took a 34-15 lead.
Saint Peter’s head coach Shaheen Holloway provided an accurate observation when he said he didn’t recognize his own team early on. He referred to the team’s 9-27 start to the game. He alluded to the missed shots, layups and dunks. He might as well known then his players gave all they could.
There’s a reason mid-major teams don’t win the national championship. There’s a reason the clock strikes midnight for Cinderella sooner or later. Those teams are not used to playing a faster and deeper team like the remaining Final Four teams in North Carolina, Kansas, Villanova and Duke. Those teams also have been there where the coach knows what to do with the culture he created. Every round gets harder the more a Cinderella team advances. It’s one thing to win one game, but it’s another to start winning two or more.
This is why we should appreciate this Saint Peter’s team forever. There will likely not be a run like this for this basketball program again. It’s just hard for a mid-major Cinderella school. So much luck has to be involved for everything to align. To get to the Elite Eight is an accomplishment for the Peacocks. We don’t have to look back weeks, months or years later to understand that. We should have realized it when this run was here.
For 40 minutes on Sunday, Saint Peter’s thought it was good enough to beat North Carolina. After all, the Peacocks went this far to be good enough to think they can win the Elite Eight. Anything can happen for 40 minutes with a chance to go to the Final Four.
It wasn’t meant to be on this day. That’s the way sports goes. That’s the way life goes. Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you. Saint Peter’s had enough of its day during the NCAA Tournament.
Understandably, in the end, there was resignation and disappointment by the players. They thought they were good enough to go to the Final Four and win the national championship. Success breeds confidence and belief. It wasn’t just the players. Everyone believed.
All of this had to end abruptly on Sunday. We can only ask why it had to be that way.
In the end, there’s one champion standing. That’s the life of sports.
Saint Peter’s will not be in the Final Four. The Peacocks won’t be a national champion. There’s a good chance there won’t be a movie about them in the works. The nation likely will forget about them.
But in Jersey City and in the tri-state area, we will never forget them ever.
This Peacocks team gave us a One Shining Moment that we haven’t had in a long time.
In a way, they exit the stage as winners.