St. Peter's seniors rewarded with NCAA bid

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- When Alabama lost to Saint Peter’s in the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands in November, the easy thing to do was to mock the Crimson Tide for a horrible start.

Saint Peter’s? Did Alabama really lose to the Peacocks?

This was the same program that four years ago, according to SPC forward Ryan Bacon, was “horrible’’ when the three now-senior leaders arrived to take a chance on this much-maligned program in Jersey City, N.J.

Saint Peter’s admittedly wasn’t very good when it beat Alabama either. The Peacocks would end up sputtering along, getting off to a 9-9 start by mid-January. The Tide ultimately turned their season around and won the SEC West, hardly looking like the team that went 0-3 in St. Thomas.

SPC didn’t go on quite the same roll, but something changed with the Peacocks, too. The team’s seniors -- Bacon, Wesley Jenkins, Nick Leon and even JC transfer senior Jeron Belin -- showed leadership and wouldn’t let this team fade.

Saint Peter’s won eight of its next 10 games before the final two games of the season. That’s when head coach John Dunne thought he might have lost this team. The Peacocks got rocked at home by Iona, 73-59, and then fell at Rider by three to end the regular season and finish as the fourth seed.

MAAC regular-season champ Fairfield was the favorite and playing at home, and Saint Peter’s had to get through the Stags if it were to go on a magical run. The Peacocks beat Loyola (Md.) in the first round and then stunned Fairfield with a 40-15 halftime lead and coasted to a 62-48 victory. That set up Monday night’s championship game against Iona, the No. 2 seed.

Saint Peter’s was in control for most of the game, before the Gaels’ frenetic press got to the Peacocks, forcing a bunch turnovers and getting the lead down to one possession late. But made free throws and some long-awaited composure led the Peacocks to the title, beating Iona 62-57 for SPC's third NCAA tournament berth and first since 1995. The fourth-seeded Peacocks are the lowest-seeded team to win the MAAC tourney since 2001.

“We’re not scared of anybody,’’ Jenkins said.

“We’re the new Butler,’’ said Bacon.

The Peacocks have a shot to avoid a 16 and be a No. 15 seed. The MAAC has had some decent success with seeding as Siena was a 13 three years ago and upset Vanderbilt, then a 9 when it beat Ohio State before going back to a 13 last season (and losing in the first round). But the MAAC isn’t averse to a 16 as Niagara got tagged with that seed in 2007 and was in the opening-round game in Dayton.

But the euphoric Peacocks didn’t seem too concerned with seeding on a night like this.

“This is so special,’’ Dunne said. “It’s awesome.’’

Dunne took over a downtrodden program in 2006 after being Louis Orr’s assistant at Seton Hall. Dunne won five games in Year 1, six in Year 2, 11 in Year 3, 16 in Year 4 and now 20 in his fifth season. The core group of seniors was recruited with the Peacocks coming off a 5-25 season.

“Maybe we don’t come together after that loss to Iona if they were all juniors, maybe they’re looking at next year, hanging their heads,’’ Dunne said. “The seniors didn’t want to go out like that.’’

Jenkins said he and his teammates believed they could turn this program around and win a MAAC title after last season’s conference tournament.

“We were a year older and now we’ve won a MAAC championship,’’ Jenkins said.

The play was sloppy at times Monday night as the two teams combined for 28 turnovers. But you couldn’t fault the effort or the passion from the staffs or the fan bases who came out to support both sides. The showing from St. Peter’s and Iona was strong.

The euphoria from the Peacocks on winning this title was genuine. The voice cracking from Dunne when he took the microphone to thank the fans was real.

When you wonder what assistant coaches are thinking when they leave a major-conference program to be a head coach at a program with little name recognition, just think about moments and games like Monday. Dunne put together a program and got a recruiting class to believe that he could get the players to the NCAA tournament before they graduated if they bought into what he was selling. They were decent enough during the season, but even better for three days here in March.

And now the payoff is the experience of a lifetime at the NCAA tournament.

“Sometimes you end up questioning yourself,’’ Dunne said of the past five years. “But my family kept me together and we kept persevering. We felt good going into their junior year and now as seniors [they won the title]. This is very, very special.’’