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Cinderella does not leave the dance

Cenicienta no se va del baile

There is no March Madness without a Cinderella story and there has never been a Cinderella like these Peacocks, the peacocks from Saint Peter’s who will play the 2022 Elite 8. The regional final, the quarterfinals of the great university tournament, the door to the New Orleans Final Four. It will be 40 minutes, at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia and against one of the most revered universities in American sports: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have 52 tournament appearances, 129 wins (the same as Kentucky atop the NCAA), 20 Final Four appearances and six titles. St. Peters are in their fourth tournament, having won three matches, all in the last two weeks. And of course he doesn’t know what it’s like to step on a Final Four or win a national title. Does that matter at this point?

It should matter, but this is March Madness, this is the big dance, and there comes a time when logic doesn’t count, when there aren’t enough Hollywood writers to improve what’s happening on the floor, in the stands, in front of televisions across the country. That is the mystique, the chemistry and the physics of this tournament. Those are the bones of a date without which it is impossible to understand the American sports calendar. St Peters is the first seed 15 (ranking 15 in a table of 16) to reach the Elite 8. It has never happened with a system implemented in 1979 to a team that started between 13th and 16th places. It has happened in the East, where the eighth (North Carolina) and the fifteenth will fight for the Final Four. Baylor t Kentucky fell, 1 and 2 on that side of the draw. And on Friday, 3 (Purdue) and 4 merged, UCLA, which could not beat North Carolina (66-73), much finer in the decisive stretch thanks to a majestic second half by Caleb Love, who finished with 30 points. although he had 3 at rest.

But the big story in Philadelphia, before that duel between two historic universities, had come in the Purdue disaster, number 3 in the East and one of the most powerful attacks in the country. In the Sweet 16, against Cinderella, 64 points (64-67). Only 31 in a second part in which they signed a 1/12 in triples. 15 total losses, unhinged Zach Edey and dejected (9 points, 6 turnovers, 4/12 shooting) Jaden Ivey, the shooting guard who is top 4 of the next draft in almost all forecasts. Number 1 in some, even.

Shaheen Holloway, the manager of St Peters, set up a perfect defensive trap. A lot of physique, pressure, intensity to compensate for the disadvantage in muscle, collapsed passing lanes… and a treacherous adjustment zone, at the right moment in the second half, the ambush that put Perdue in a spiral of turnovers and personal fouls from the one that didn’t come out. The favorite, demolished. Close to home, inside player Clarence Rupert played a great game (11 points, 3 steals) before the team’s two outside players kept the pulse from the free throw line: the brilliant Daryl Banks III (14 points) and the already iconic (with an already famous mustache) Doug Edert (10 points).

St. Peters is the biggest upset in tournament history. Gone is UMBC, the first seed 16 to beat a seed. And Florida Gulf Coast, the first seed 15 to reach the Sweet 16. St Peters has won three games and carries the pride of New Jersey, a high school basketball state of street legends, now a widower of a professional team after fleeing to Brooklyn from the Nets. Only Seton Hall, in 2000, had represented Jersey in the tournament’s second weekend this century. That team was based on Holloway, who when the tournament is over will leave St Peters to what was his home. Since 2000, that Seton Hall has won two tournament matches. Rutgers and Princeton, one each. St Peters has three in this edition.

It really is an impossible success. It is a modest Jesuit university that barely invests 7.5 million a year in its entire sports program. It has just 3,500 students and a pavilion that is a matchbox for just over 3,200 fans, recently remodeled thanks to the anonymous millions of a former university player who acted as a patron. When Holloway arrived in 2018, the Peacocks had neither money nor elite facilities nor tradition. Nothing. They are now one of the most incredible stories in the history of American sports. A gibberish of those that turn sport into something, luckily, wonderfully inexplicable.

The ticket to the tournament came with an unexpected success in its Conference, the modest MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference). He had lost six Conference games in the season and five of the six he had played against other Division I rivals, the highest university category. Out of 358 teams that make it up, the Peacocks were 260th in offensive rating, 317th in 2-point shooting percentage and also 317th in turnover ratio. They have no big stars, no small team super scorers. And in the first round they had to play against Kentucky, a seed 2 that many saw as a clear contender for the title and a historic team that had not lost in the tournament since 1986 against a team ranked tenth and below. And that with John Calipari (the coach who earns 8 million a year) he had never fallen in the first round. Then, and before dealing with Purdue’s theoretically lethal attack, Murray State fell, a seventh-ranked team that had 21 straight wins. Without knowing where they came from, the Peacocks now have ten in a row. One more… and they will be in the Final Four. And the truth is that right now, anything is possible.

There was more on the night that closed out the Sweet 16. Miami outscored Iowa State (70-56) with a suffocating defense. It is the first time that the Hurricanes have qualified for the Elite 8 and their coach, Jjim Larrañaga, becomes the first to put two teams ranked tenth or lower among the top eight in the country. He did it in 2006 with George Mason (11). He has done it with Miami, a tenth that will play the ticket for New Orleans in the last duel in Chicago against Kansas, the only seed 1 that has survived until here and that is the favorite on the Midwest side after handling Providence with difficulty (66-61).

So the Elite 8 is set to settle the four Final Four spots (April 2-4) this weekend:

To the West, Duke-Arkansas in San Francisco

From the East, North Carolina-St Peters in Philadelphia

To the South, Villanova-Houston in San Antonio

And through the Midwest, Kansas-Miami in Chicago

For the first time since 1998, North Carolina and Duke are both in the Elite 8, one game away from meeting and reliving on the biggest possible stage what is one of the most historic and bitter rivalries in American sports. It would also be in the last year of Mike Krzyzewski, the legendary Coach K, who will retire after this tournament and who has just reached 100 victories in Madness, more than anyone else. His last home game, at the Duke court, spoiled it a few days ago… North Carolina. It’s one of the great stories left in fourth Elite 8 history with two teams ranked 10th or worse. And in which one, the St Peters Peacocks, have just become America’s team. They tread uncharted ground: the first college in the Elite 8 since seed 15, the impossible story of Jersey and Hudson County pride. The incredible story that not even a hundred Hollywood screenwriters would write: the Bones of March Madness, the reason for the big dance.

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