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From Cocky to Keels to Cooley: Black Catholic storylines in March Madness' second weekend

Cinderellas, mid-majors, and blue bloods alike are supplying interesting Sweet Sixteen matchups this year involving Catholic schools, players, and coaches.

INDIANAPOLIS — As the second weekend of March Madness approaches, the story of the men's tournament remains the Peacocks of Saint Peter’s University, who for the second time in a row defeated a higher seed to advance.

The #15 seed upstarts (21-11) bested the #7-seed Murray State Racers (31-3) on Saturday 70-60, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in school history—after securing their first-ever win in the NCAA Tournament last Thursday against #2 Kentucky.

That bracket-busting finish brought the small New Jersey Jesuit school into the national spotlight, and they are now just the third 15 seed in history to make the third round, following Oral Roberts last year and Florida Gulf Coast in 2013.

Prior to Saturday’s game, Murray State hadn’t lost since December.

“These guys deserve it,’’ said Saint Peter’s coach Shaheen Holloway after the game.

“[After] what I put these guys through during the year, playing the game is easy… These guys came out here on a mission.”

The team was led in the contest by senior forward Kenechukwu "KC" Ndefo, who notched 17 points and 10 rebounds, along with an eye-popping 6 blocks to anchor the Peacock defense.

They held the Racers to 34.6% shooting on the night and just 60 points, well off their 79-point average. They sat at 27 points for a 6-minute stretch beginning late in the first half, not scoring again until two and a half minutes into the second.

For Saint Peter’s, the hot-shooting Doug Edert— a mustachioed social media sensation, and the lone White player representing a rare Catholic university that is majority Black and Hispanic—scored 13 points off the bench, increasing his tournament average to 16.5, matching teammate Devin Banks III for the team lead.

Starting guard Matthew Lee added 9 points of his own, along with a team-leading 4 assists against just one turnover. His leadership carries on the legacy of his father, Butch Lee Jr., a retired NBA champion and NCAA Player of the Year who starred in Marquette University’s 1977 tournament run—which culminated in that Jesuit school’s first and only NCAA title in any team sport.

The Peacocks, now winners of nine straight, will next face the East Region’s #3-ranked Purdue Boilermakers on Friday at 7:09pm ET in Philadelphia, a tough matchup that will require stopping Naismith Player of the Year candidates Jaden Ivey and 7’4” center Zach Edey.

Saint Peter’s is one of four Catholic schools headed to the Sweet Sixteen, including the #1 seed Gonzaga Bulldogs, #2 Villanova Wildcats, and #4 Providence Friars. As it happens, each is in one of the four regions of the bracket.

In the West Region, Gonzaga (28-3) will face #4 Arkansas (27-8) for a chance to face the winner of #3 Texas Tech (27-9) and #2 Duke (30-6). The Blue Devils are led by Italian-American forward and Catholic school grad Paolo Banchero, also a Naismith finalist, who averages 17 points a game.

His teammate Trevor Keels, the third-leading scorer for the team, was said last year to be considering converting to Catholicism, while still a senior at St Paul VI High School in Chantilly, Virginia.

While that storyline has not yet had a known resolution, his ability to convert baskets on the hardwood has proven eminently useful for Duke, which needed every one of his 12 points on Sunday against #7-seed Michigan State (23-14).

On Friday, he will join his teammates in seeking to gain Coach Mike Krzyzewski—himself a Catholic—a fitting send-off in his final season with the blue-blood Devils, capping off a 42-year career at the school which has made him the winningest men's basketball coach in NCAA Division I and March Madness history.

In the Midwest Region, the Providence Friars (27-5), led by Naismith Coach of the Year finalist Ed Cooley— Black Catholic born and raised in Providence—will face #1-seed Kansas (30-6) on Friday evening at 7:29pm in Chicago.

The historic Dominican school is gunning for a trip to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1997, when they lost to eventual champion Arizona.

“It's hard to get to this point. We're just a little school that everybody says, ‘Oh, it's Providence.’” Cooley said after his team defeated the #12-seed Richmond Spiders (24-18) on Saturday, 79-51.

“Well, Providence is in the damn building.”

The school is indeed riding high, having won the Big East regular-season championship this year for the first time in school history, followed by a first-round NCAA Tournament win against #13 seed South Dakota State (30-6).

Seeded higher in March Madness than ever before, the team is led by Nate Watson and Jared Bynum—both Catholic-educated—alongside Aljami “Al” Durham.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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