PHILADELPHIA -- About an hour after Saint Peter's charmed March Madness run sputtered to an end against North Carolina on Sunday, coach Shaheen Holloway emerged from the Peacocks' locker room. As he walked toward the team bus with his oldest son, Xavier, Holloway wore a backpack with an oversize yellow tube of Wet Ones sticking out of the open pocket on the bag's left side.
The trappings of a return to reality surrounded him. The din of arena carts echoed through the hallways. Saint Peter's supporters grabbed signs with the school's name from the walls near the locker room. The Peacocks' run to history had shifted to just that -- history.
Holloway looked subdued, wearing the familiar ornery grimace he wore on the sideline, as he left the arena "really disappointed in myself" for not adjusting better in the game.
"I really thought we were going to win this game," Holloway said. "I'll be honest with you. No disrespect to them. I just thought we could match up with them."
After consecutive thrilling wins over No. 2 seed Kentucky, No. 7 seed Murray State and No. 3 seed Purdue, 15th-seeded Saint Peter's failed to muster much of a fight against No. 8 seed North Carolina. The Tar Heels restored world order, advancing to their record 21st Final Four with an authoritative 69-49 victory.
All along this run, Holloway spoke of not wanting to wake up from the dream, as Saint Peter's became the first 15-seed in NCAA tournament history to reach the Elite Eight. By falling short of the Final Four, a laughable notion just two weeks ago, the Peacocks now exited the arena to an uncertain future.
Holloway is considered the prohibitive favorite for the open job at Seton Hall. No other candidates have been publicly identified in the search, and it's an industrywide expectation that Holloway will be the coach at his alma mater in the next week.
When asked a question that alluded to the Seton Hall job in his news conference, Holloway brushed it aside, much as he has done the past two weeks.
"I'm not worried about that right now," he said. "I'm worried about those 15 young men whose hearts are broken and really down. It's my job as their leader to cheer them up, make sure they understand what they did the last two weeks. And like I said, we're going to walk out of here the same way we walked in here, with our head up."
The reality of Holloway's future isn't lost on Saint Peter's athletic director Rachelle Paul. Holloway's ties to his alma mater are so deep that Xavier is named in part after the Seton Hall dormitory where Holloway and his wife, Kim, met. Holloway also served eight years there as an assistant to coach Kevin Willard prior to his four seasons at Saint Peter's.
Holloway makes nearly $266,000, according to the latest available tax documents. It's not unrealistic to think he could make nearly 10 times that amount at Seton Hall.
"We honestly haven't spoken about it at all," Paul told ESPN. "He's been focused on his team, and he's been focused on the next game. These things move quickly. And we'll certainly have conversations about it. I'll do what I can do, whatever it is. If and when it comes up, I'll do whatever I can."
Amid the crushing emotions of the loss, Saint Peter's officials, players and coaches attempted to put into context the Elite Eight run. Saint Peter's is a gritty commuter school in Jersey City, New Jersey, that has the lowest basketball budget in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Holloway was effusive in his praise for what Saint Peter's accomplished, as the school had never previously won an NCAA tournament game.
"They shocked the world," Holloway said. "You've got guys that's going to be remembered for things that they could tell their kids and grandkids. It's a story within a story. I'm super proud of these guys. They came in and made history. Point blank, period. No one has done it."
For Saint Peter's, the final chapter of this NCAA run will always be tinged with disappointment. The Peacocks simply didn't play well, as they missed open looks, got pushed around in the paint and couldn't force the tempo with their pressure-based man-to-man defense. Saint Peter's shot 30% from the field, had no answer for UNC's Armando Bacot (20 points and 22 rebounds) and struggled to guard 6-foot-9 sharpshooter Brady Manek (19 points on 7-for-11 shooting).
"We expected to win this game," Saint Peter's senior forward KC Ndefo said. "Felt like we didn't compete as well as we were supposed to. This is a brotherhood, and we love all of our brothers. So we stayed together through it, and there was definitely emotions in the locker room of sadness."
And as the locker room emptied out amid the echoes and chilly drafts, the finality sank in.
"I'm so proud of this team," Paul said. "They should hold their heads high. They made everybody proud. They had the whole country behind them. They were America's team; there's nothing to be ashamed of. Losing sucks; we're all competitive. But this was amazing."