Reality was already settling in when Daryl Banks III squared himself for liftoff. The first 18 minutes of St. Peter’s latest attempt at cheating death had been a lesson in the limits of sentiment. The shots that had bounced in were now bouncing out. The fouls that hadn’t been called were now resulting in whistles. The opposing ballhandlers who’d once wilted under the pressure now looked calm and composed and prepared for everything that the Peacocks had to throw at them. All of the things they had going in their favor — the momentum, the mojo, the loyalty of the crowd — suddenly seemed of little consequence. All that mattered now was the cool mechanical rationality of physics.
Yet here was Banks, his team trailing by 19 points in the latest biggest game of their lives, knifing into the lane in transition with one thought in his mind. With no regard for the NBA-sized 6-foot-10 big man standing in his way, the Peacocks’ junior guard picked up his dribble and cradled the ball in his right hand and exploded toward the rim and cocked his arm back and hammered it down toward the hoop. And just when you thought that this might be it, the moment that sparked Cinderella’s greatest run yet, you saw Banks’ momentum stop cold, and the ball meet the front of the rim, the force of the blow landing him square on his rump in the middle of the paint.
This was how history ended, in the exact fashion that any rational observer should have predicted it would. After three consecutive upsets that made St. Peter’s the first ever 15 seed to advance to the brink of the Final Four, the Peacocks ran into a team that wasn’t just bigger but also considerably better, to an extent that the 69-49 final score somehow seemed to understate the margin.
In North Carolina, the Peacocks encountered the one team in this tournament that might have been hotter than they were, and nothing that Shaheen Holloway tried could make up the difference.
“I kind of wish we could play this game over,” Holloway said later.
It was an admirable sentiment, but also one he might reconsider after watching the tape. Two nights after the Peacocks subdued third-seeded Purdue with their withering ball pressure, Holloway’s team found themselves struggling to keep up with a steady Tar Heels back court and a punishing interior presence. With the steady hand of sophomore guard Caleb Love shrugging off St. Peter’s man pressure and the powerful 6-foot-10, 240-pound from of junior forward Armando Bacot turning the paint into an impact crater, North Carolina cruised to a 38-19 halftime lead and never looked back. Bacot scored 20 points and grabbed 22 rebounds, eight of them on the offensive end, and Love knocked down two of his team’s six three-pointers as the Tar Heels secured their record 130th NCAA Tournament win to set up an epic Final Four showdown with archrival Duke.
Midnight struck. That’s really all there is to it. After missing 30 of its first 37 shots, St. Peters would never draw closer than its 19-point halftime deficit. With just over seven minutes remaining, Banks hit a corner three-pointer that cut the Tar Heels lead to 55-36, only to watch North Carolina quickly score five straight points and silence the brief flurry of energy from the St. Peter’s crowd.
“We expected to win this game,” said forward K.C. Ndefo, the one senior in St. Peter’s rotation. “We felt like we didn’t compete as well as we were supposed to.”
Yet, they did compete. They competed like hell. The shots may not have fallen and the whistles may not have gone their way and their obvious physical disadvantages may have finally mattered. But in a tournament that has always managed to encapsulate the pure spirit of competition, this tiny team of grinders from the grittiest pocket of New Jersey has every right to the title of ablest competitors of them all.
Even in defeat — a loud, lopsided defeat — St. Peter’s left you with moments that spoke to the foundation of the Peacocks’ presence. They played North Carolina close to even after a disastrous first half that could have sapped the life out of the bench the same way it did the building. Down 21 midway through the second half, Holloway was dialing up a full-court trapping defense, practically running out on the court while encouraging his exhausted defenders.
Banks’ attempt to throw down a tomahawk over Bacot was a poster-worthy testament with an unfortunate result. Bacot held seven inches on him and upwards of 50 pounds.
“We’re walking out of here the same way we walked in,” Holloway said. “Heads held high.”
The big guy may have won. But the little guy more than made his mark.