Cinderella taken out by the blues

Cinderella isn’t coming to New Orleans. Instead, we get a Final Four of bluebloods.

Who among us thought St. Peter’s could overcome North Carolina, even an eighth-seeded bunch of Tar Heels, after dispatching Kentucky, and Purdue (no disrespect to the Murray State Racers, but a super season isn’t admission to the Sky Lounge)?

Who among us HOPED St. Peter’s could do it ONE MORE TIME?

St. Peter’s, undergraduate enrollment of 2,600, shouted “why not US?” to every Division I basketball program not in a Power 5 conference, and to some that are in that number. Washington State? Vanderbilt? Colorado? I could go on, but you get the idea. Most of the 358 D-I basketball teams are not anywhere near the top of the food chain.

The 2022 Final Four teams have millions of lifelong fans who have only seen their favorite teams play on TV. Nothing wrong with that. But there’s a lot to be said for the George Masons, Butlers, and yes, the Gonzagas of the college hoops world (the Zags seem omnipresent in the top 10 now, but they didn’t make a Final Four until five years ago) crashing the Big Dance’s smallest gathering, its conclusion: four regional champions, three games, one winner.

How sweet it would have been to have St. Peter’s in the Crescent City. A school whose campus takes up all of two blocks in Jersey City. A program that uses trash can lids mid-practice to catch dripping rainwater in its home gym. The other teams have five-star recruits. The Peacocks didn’t have five stars AMONG their recruits.

When Mike McConathy led Northwestern State on its first steps into March Madness in 2001, it was just two years earlier that Gonzaga had made its initial run to the Elite Eight and was considered a Cinderella. When the Demons came home, there was a decent amount of dreamy speculation whether NSU could follow that same trail.

Didn’t happen. Doesn’t but once every forever. Ask folks at UT Arlington. The Mavs soared to the 2017 NIT quarterfinals, ending with 27 wins and a Dallas Morning News headline that seemed reasonable: “UTA comes up short in bid for NIT semifinals, but appears long on promise for the future.”

Didn’t happen. Hubris overdose. A year later, after 21 more wins, a new athletic director canned coach Scott Cross – not only a UTA grad, but an Academic All-American guard for the Mavs – and said the program was headed on Gonzaga’s path to prominence. Heard anything from UTA since? Except for two coaching changes?

Point is, don’t look for St. Peter’s to be back next year – in March Madness, let alone the Elite Eight.

The Peacocks didn’t edge over .500 this year until Jan. 18 after topping Canisius 65-57 in a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference battle. They hadn’t won more than two straight until they got hot at the right time, reeling off 10 wins until Sunday’s meltdown. So Cinderella was 12-11, then found its footing and eventually, a glass slipper.

The St. Peter’s run was fueled by gallons of guts, complete buy-in among the Peacock flock, no small amount of pluck, and feathery jump shots that seemed magnetized to the inside of the rim. Good players, playing great – but not a future NBA Draft pick on the roster. A coach who knew his team and knew no fear.

It was a joy to watch. In the 318 AC, doubtful anyone had a direct tie to St. Peter’s, but we all developed a connection.

“Why not US?” That question is being asked by Bulldogs, Demons, Warhawks, (Grambling) Tigers and many, many more. Every March, we’ll now all have a little more hope, thanks to Peacocks who ruffled some feathers, spread their wings and soared.