NCAA Final Four Will Be Exciting, Even Without St. Peter’s

To understand why Shaheen Holloway’s stock has skyrocketed during these past few weeks of March Madness, you only need to look at what he did during a timeout early the East regional final on Sunday. With his St. Peter’s Peacocks down 7-0 to North Carolina, Holloway drew up a play intended to spark his team: a lob pass for junior guard Daryl Banks. Like many of Holloway’s calls during the tournament, this one worked to perfection. Banks emerged from underneath the basket, after several movements. Banks rose up to accept the pass and pointed at the basket.

Banks didn’t make the right shot. And St. Peter’s still hadn’t scored.

This was the kind of night that Peacocks Philadelphia had hoped for. North Carolina stomped out the darlings of March Madness, 69-49, on Sunday, ending a magic ride: the Peacocks became the first 15-seed to ever play in the Elite Eight of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament—one game away from the Final Four. St. Peter’s missed seven shots at the rim and another five close jumpers in the lane, though the Tar Heels defense contested many of them. From three-point range, the Peacocks shot just 4-16 (or 25%) to win.

Despite the skill and pluckiness of Holloway’s undersized team, and the enthusiasm of the St. Peter’s partisans that made the easy trip down the Turnpike from Jersey City, at times the game had the feel of first-round blowout between a No. A No.16 seed is the seed. Peacocks lost 27-9 to the Wildcats and never recovered. North Carolina had too much Armando Bacot, the 6’10” junior who finished with 22 rebounds and 20 points, and Brady Manek, the 6’9″ grad transfer with the lumberjack beard; Manek shot 4-6 from 3-point range and had 19 points.

“I didn’t really recognize my team the first ten minutes of the game,” says Holloway. “We came out a little slow, a little timid.”

St. Peter’s hit a wall, as so many upset-minded teams do during the tournament. Despite the game’s letdown, the Peacocks got further in the Big Dance than any 15th-seeded pre-tournament afterthought ever did. This run was memorable. Late in the game, a group of St. Peter’s players huddled together and told themselves that they just accomplished something amazing.

“They shocked the world,” says Holloway, who is likely to take the head coaching job at his alma mater, Seton Hall of the Big East. “You’ve got guys [who are]They will be remembered for the things they were able to tell their grandchildren and children. It’s a story within a story. I’m super proud of these guys. They were history-makers. Point-blank, period.”

Luckily for college basketball, the sport couldn’t really lose in this game. The No. 1 seed was the winner, and he would be moving to Duke. 2 seed out of the West region, in the Final Four on April 2, in Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s swan song. So the winningest coach in college basketball history was going to either face America’s new favorite college team, the Peacocks, or his Tobacco Road rival, the Tar Heels, in a matchup that’s never happened in any March Madness round—never mind the national semifinals. Since 1920, bitter rivals North Carolina have met Duke 257 time. UNC leads the all-time series by 142 to 85. The schools have never been to the Big Dance.

New Orleans is host to the Final Four for only the second time in a decade. Villanova will face Kansas in another semi-final, along with Duke and UNC. ‘Nova, also a No. Two of the five previous national championships have been won by 2 seeds. Jayhawks are a No. 1 seed, just passed Kentucky as the winningest program in men’s college basketball history.

Krzyzewski will receive the most attention, and for good reasons. North Carolina, however is creating a great story all its own. Hubert Davis, North Carolina’s first-year head coach, found himself under some heat from the school’s rabid fan base this season, especially after his team lost to Wake Forest by 22 points in January. This defeat occurred four days following a Miami 85-57 loss. They had been 14-19 after the COVID-truncated 2019-2022 season. The Tar Heels also lost the NCAA Tournament’s first round last year. Davis had been hearing the whispers: What’s going on at mighty Carolina? “That’s not typical North Carolina,” Davis says. “I want this program to be respected.”

Davis was faced with the difficult task of replacing Roy Williams, Hall of Fame coach who had won three national titles over 18 years at Chapel Hill. Davis becomes the first rookie coach to make the men’s national semis since UNC’s Bill Guthridge led the Tar Heels to the Final Four in 1998. Davis, a former UNC star who played a dozen years in the NBA, is just the second men’s coach to reach the Final Four with the same school as both a player and head coach. First was Dick Harp who played in the 1940 Final Four for Kansas and coached the 1957 national championship team.

After the final buzzer sounded, Davis, who was hired last April and is the first Black men’s basketball head coach in North Carolina history, teared up before shaking hands with Holloway at mid-court. “It’s been a wild 11-and-a-half months,” says Davis. “It was the first time I can remember in the last 11-and-a-half months that I could take a deep breath, and it just came out.”

Next Saturday’s North Carolina-Duke matchup will be the most anticipated in Final Four history. Davis and the Tar Heels have already mucked with Coach K’s victory tour: UNC beat Duke 94-81 on March 5, spoiling Krzyzewski’s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “I don’t think anything can be as crazy as it was leading up to the game over in Cameron,” says Davis. “We keep our eyes straight ahead and we ignore all the noise. It is important for them to ignore the noise from their friends and families, as well as the phones. Focus on the preparations and practices. Then play will flow smoothly. And that’s what we’re going to do this upcoming week.”

St. Peter’s may have fallen. But we’re about to see a Final Four like no other. All wins.

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