Purdue proving ‘more is possible’ in March

Cinderella’s latest chapter began with a strut, from the peace and quiet of a Wells Fargo Center hallway into the spotlight. The Saint Peter’s Peacocks had attracted it, of course, with this magical March Madness run, and grown used to it, but a row of cameramen flocking to film them … walking into an arena?

A few glanced sideways, almost taken aback.

Then they settled into a locker room, and tugged on warmup shirts with three bold words printed on the fronts: “MORE IS POSSIBLE.”

And then, over two-plus hours here on Friday night, they proved it was.

They shocked third-seeded Purdue, 67-64, in a Sweet 16 game that oddsmakers thought wouldn’t be close. They became the first No. 15 seed to win a third game in the NCAA tournament. They’ll meet North Carolina in the Elite Eight, but first, they had history to celebrate.

They dashed across the floor in ecstasy. The Drame twins, Hassan and Fousseyni, dropped to their knees at center court to pray. Doug Edert, their viral hero, cleared off a courtside table and summited it, saluting a section of students and alums and others who’ve latched onto this incomprehensible underdog story.

“You were up on the table?!?” teammate Daryl Banks III later asked Edert, amazed by his audacity.

“Yeeaahh,” Edert said with a sheepish smile.

“You were up on the table?” head coach Shaheen Holloway repeated in a hushed voice.

He rolled his eyes, and shook his head, and muttered under his breath, like an embarrassed older brother but, deep down, also a proud dad.

Because he, more than anybody, knows how remarkable, how improbable all of this is.

Ten days ago, his players were nobodies, eccentric upstarts outperforming their means in an undistinguished conference. They represented a tiny commuter school that very few people could pinpoint on a map. Their program’s distinguishing quality, in some basketball circles, had been dingy, sometimes defective facilities.

Those facilities became the stuff of lore this week. Unpaid assistant coaches worked in offices that were “unsanitary,” often either sweltering or frigid, and occasionally flooded. There were ceiling leaks, including one that postponed a game. There were pipes that burst, and hot water that went cold, and heat that went off.

For decades, until recently, they lifted in a weight room adjacent to classes. They practiced and played at the Yanitelli Center, which opened in 1975 with fold-away bleachers at a cost of $6 million. Joe Schmo students could use it. Jersey City residents could rent it, and often did, for parties and other events that occasionally conflicted with practice. Timbs scuffed up the floor. Swimmers and screaming kids would cross paths with opposing teams at the locker rooms.

Holloway, a former Seton Hall star and assistant coach, took the job in 2018, and when recruits visited, he rarely showed them any of this. Staffers would walk high-schoolers through campus to the student center. Holloway would sell them on something less tangible, on a vision for how he’d develop them and the program, and for what they could achieve together.

The vision materialized slowly. The facilities improved. The budget increased slightly. The school upgraded the home gym, now Run Baby Run Arena, which opened after construction this season. As the infrastructure grew, Holloway’s team grew with it, into a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference contender.

But just three months ago, when COVID-19 struck the Peacocks, they were 2-6 against Division I opponents. The virus paused their season for four weeks. Holloway turned those four weeks into a “minicamp,” an opportunity to reset and map out a turnaround. “The break was everything for us,” he said, including a reason for their conference tournament title — but of course, nobody, not even in Jersey City, predicted this.

And so, on an unforgettable night, this private Jesuit school found itself submerged in attention. Its website crashed. Phones — from Holloway’s to the school president’s — buzzed incessantly. Saint Peter’s had, for 150 years, been a proud but humble institution that attracted first-generation college students and sent them off to better lives. Suddenly, it attracted millions of sports fans nationwide. Online shops and student-center merchandise stores sold out instantly, then restocked, and sold out again. Rinse, repeat. Rinse repeat.

The attention came for players too. Holloway hopped from one interview to the next, and eventually had to turn off his phone. All of it easily could have overwhelmed them. The 20,000-plus fans here Friday were the most — and the loudest — they’d ever played in front of.

But, Edert said, “I don’t think any of us were nervous, or really cared about how many people were there watching us.”

“I got a bunch of guys that just play basketball and have fun,” Holloway said. “That’s all we do.”