The celebration was nearing its end Friday night as St. Peter’s cleared the court at the Wells Fargo Center following its stunning 67-64 win over Purdue in the Sweet 16.
St. Peter’s became the first 15th seed to ever reach the Elite Eight and the Peacocks — who played their home opener in Jersey City this season in front of 434 fans — made a sold-out South Philly arena feel like North Jersey.
But before they returned to the locker room, there was another moment to savor and another roar to hear for Clarence Rupert, the North Philadelphia freshman who emboldened St. Peter’s to not give an inch to a bigger and stronger opponent.
Rupert turned back to the crowd — many of which were his family and friends — and raised his hands as the fans cheered once more.
“We’re happy, but don’t mistake, we’re not satisfied. We’re not satisfied at all,” said Doug Edert, who hit a pair of free throws with 4.1 seconds left to put the Peacocks ahead by three. “The job is not finished. We feel like we belong, and the more games we win, the more confidence we build. We have a great amount of momentum going into the next game and we’re going to play as hard as we can just like we did all season to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
The night belonged to St. Peter’s, the small commuter school in the shadows of Manhattan that has become one of the tournament’s all-time Cinderellas. They’ll play North Carolina on Sunday after the eighth-seeded Tar Heels held off No. 4 UCLA, 73-66.
None of the St. Peter’s players was a prime recruit out of high school and most of them — like Rupert — came to Jersey City because that was their only place to play Divison I ball.
They knocked off Kentucky in the first round and bounced Murray State to reach the Sweet 16. But their story seemed to be finished before Friday night as the undersized Peacocks surely wouldn’t be able to handle Purdue, a team featuring a 7-foot-4 center and pegged by many for a deep tournament run.
But St. Peter’s — from Rupert swatting the ball away from the towering Zach Edey on the opening possession to Daryl Banks hitting a jumper to take a two-point lead with two minutes left — refused to be denied.
The St. Peter’s student population (roughly 3,000) is about equal to the capacity of its on-campus arena, which has 11,000 fewer seats than Purdue’s home gym. The Peacocks had to stop their basketball program in December for 27 days due to a COVID-19 outbreak — the longest pause among tournament teams — and were 3-6 when their season resumed Jan. 14.
None of that mattered Friday as they won their 10th straight game, the longest active winning streak in the nation, and the story of their March continues to be written.
On Sunday, they’ll meet another blueblood of college basketball. North Carolina was led by Caleb Love’s 30 points as they’ve been carried this month by excellent guard play and the rebounding of forward Armando Bacot, who grabbed 15 rebounds on Friday night. Another stiff test awaits the Peacocks.
Banks led St. Peter’s with 14 points, none of which was bigger than the driving layup he made to take a two-point lead with 2:17 left. Rupert scored 11 points, all of which came in the first half. Edert, the mustachioed reserve guard who has become the face of the Peacocks, put the upset in reach with his two free throws.
“Our whole team, we handled the pressure at the end, took care of the ball, did what we had to do, got fouled, made our free throws,” Edert said. “But in regard to the very end, it’s amazing. I love moments like that. I work hard to get into moments like that and to execute what I have to do, and we did it together as a team.”
Purdue, which held a 33-29 halftime lead, seemed ready to pull away at several points in the second half, but the Peacocks had an answer each time. Lee knocked down a three to tie the game at 45 with 9:13 left. Edert hit three foul shots five minutes later to get within one. And Banks tied the game at 57 with 3:17 left on a crafty turn-around jumper after spinning through the lane.
St. Peter’s, a hard-nosed team from a hardscrabble town, would not go away without a fight. The Wells Fargo Center sounded like Jersey City as even the UCLA and North Carolina fans — awaiting their teams’ nightcap — were roaring for the underdogs.
“We had a great crowd today,” Edert said. “The whole environment, it was just unreal. I don’t think any of us were nervous or really cared about how many people were there watching us. We just went out there and did our thing. We’ve been doing what we’ve been doing all season, which was defending and playing as hard as we possibly can. And then the emotions at the end, again, we’re making history and we look forward to making more history.”
The magic seemed to be running thin when Purdue took a four-point lead with 5:18 left on a basket by Trevion Williams. The powerful forward scored just two points in the first half before scoring 14 in the second half. St. Peter’s withstood a lot, but Williams’ blow seemed too much for their chin to hold.
“Coach always preaches to us it’s a game of runs,” Banks said. “So we understood that coming into it, that they were going to make their runs. We were going to make our runs. But we sustained their runs for as much as possible and we made our runs greater, and we just came back.”
The coach was right. The Peacocks had one last run left in them. And that’s all they needed. They scored nine of the game’s next 11 points and held Williams to just two free throws the rest of the way.
“We’ve been in those type of predicaments before and we just tried to focus on the task at hand,” Matthew Lee said. “We knew the game was coming down to free throws and rebounds and we just tried to do our best to do that.”
St. Peter’s dug deep to answer again. Soon, Rupert would raise his hands for one last roar to carry him off the court. But first Purdue had one more chance. Jaden Ivey’s three-pointer bounced off the rim, the buzzer sounded, and the arena rocked.
Edert rushed to the sideline and leaped onto the scorer’s table. The Peacocks were still dancing and the story of March wasn’t yet finished.
“You hopped on the table,” Holloway asked.
“Yeah,” Edert said. “I found a little opening and started moving stuff, so I don’t know, I was so excited.”