Rachelle Paul had no choice but to put her husband to work.
As the athletic director at a school with a shoestring budget, Paul prioritized fiscal responsibility after Saint Peter’s men’s basketball team won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament on March 12, securing an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament. That meant that if her spouse, Tim, wanted to be part of the Peacocks’ traveling party, he had to earn his spot. So Paul left him in charge of tickets.
The school had to buy a minimum of 350 tickets for its March Madness opener against Kentucky at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indiana. Reselling that many tickets for a road contest would have been easy for a powerhouse program with diehard fans, but Saint Peter’s—a tiny, commuter, Jesuit university in Jersey City—is no blue blood.
“At this point, we had 40 season ticket holders,” Paul says. “There was no way we were selling 350 tickets.”
So Paul’s husband thought it might be worthwhile to call Kentucky to see if the Wildcats were interested in the Peacocks’ extra tickets. However, Kentucky respectfully informed Tim that it had no use for the leftover stubs, as the annual juggernaut planned on selling ticket packages for the entire weekend, a slate of two games for whoever won the opener. Kentucky’s bundle anticipated a win over Saint Peter’s, which is what most of the college basketball world expected.
But Paul knew to believe then and there. “We’re going to win this game,” she told her partner.
“You don’t sell a ticket package for Thursday and Saturday when you’re not guaranteed a Saturday game,” the admittedly superstitious Paul says now, still in disbelief. “You just don’t put the cart before the horse.”
The rest is history.
Saint Peter’s stunned Kentucky with an 85-79 overtime win on March 17, the first jaw-dropping result during an improbable run. Two days later, the Peacocks advanced to the Sweet 16 after beating Murray State. Another gargantuan upset came on March 25 when SPU outlasted Purdue in Philadelphia, a more accessible location for the school’s modest fan base.
Led by an underdog group of players, including Jersey products Daryl Banks III (Somerset), Doug Edert (Nutley) and Isiah Dasher (Jersey City), and head coach Shaheen Holloway, a former Seton Hall star, Saint Peter’s became the NCAA Tournament’s first-ever 15 seed to reach the Elite 8.
Ultimately, the magic ran out against North Carolina, the tournament’s eventual runner-up, on March 27, when Saint Peter’s lost 69-49. But the Peacocks had already cemented themselves as an all-time Cinderella story. What’s more, their play left a permanent imprint on their university, one that has already been felt beyond the basketball court.
“We put Saint Peter’s on the map,” Edert says. “There’s people all over the country that didn’t really know Saint Peter’s. We were able to put the school out there and get people to realize that it’s a good school.”
As Eugene J. Cornacchia, Saint Peter’s president, watched the Kentucky game from the school’s section at Gainbridge Fieldhouse, he noticed an arena security guard kept looking at him. Finally, with the score tied at halftime, the guard approached and said, “I just gotta tell you, your guys are amazing. I thought they were going to be blown out of the water in the first five minutes.” An honest Cornacchia says he replied, “You and me both, buddy.”
Soon after the buzzer sounded, Cornacchia’s phone blew up with similar interactions from trustees and alumni. Meanwhile, a wave of curious hoops fans crashed the university’s website, and thousands followed its social media channels as people across the country discovered the Peacocks.
“This is really going to be a big lift for us,” Cornacchia said at the time.
He was right. Saint Peter’s estimates that the entire tournament run generated about 5.3 billion media impressions, and the victories over Kentucky and Murray State were among the 20 most-watched prime time television events during the week of March 13, according to the Nielsen Ratings.
“We never would have had this kind of exposure,” says Cornacchia, who lost track of the interview requests he received throughout March Madness.
Saint Peter’s enjoyed all kinds of boons as a result of that publicity and what the men’s basketball team accomplished. Angeline Boyer, director of university communications, says SPU’s admissions department received 131 new applications from March 17 through 26, a span covering all of the Peacocks’ NCAA Tournament wins. That figure represented a 59 percent increase compared to the same time period in 2021, and Saint Peter’s saw a 57 percent increase in submitted applications between March 17 and July 1, which is around the time this story was written.
Cornacchia adds that more resources have been poured into marketing, and “giving went through the roof” throughout the Peacocks’ postseason, which began on March 9 with the start of the MAAC Tournament. Between then and March 26, Saint Peter’s received 414 donations worth $2,294,783 in total commitments, per Chris Aliano, associate athletic director for digital media and communications. That same stretch in 2021 netted the school 149 gifts for $475,452.
Folks on campus were eager to spend their money on merchandise, as Saint Peter’s counted $47,000 in sales on school grounds from March 17-24. March 24, the day before the Sweet 16 game, accounted for $15,000 in merch sales alone. For reference, the campus made just $20,000 in sales during the entire fall semester. But it wasn’t just those in Jersey City buying Peacocks gear, as online orders came from 45 different states in the two days that followed the Kentucky game. Licensed Saint Peter’s products generated more than $100,000 during the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The first eight months of the fiscal year garnered $50,000.
“This is the perfect, textbook example of the impact that a successful athletics program can have on a university, financially and otherwise,” says Paul, who adds that renovation projects at SPU may move more quickly than originally planned. “It’s great to actually be in a position now where folks on the other side of campus are recognizing that, and they’re also reaping the benefits.”
Of course, the influx in resources and increased attention will help Paul’s athletic department, too.
She added one strength and conditioning staffer to assist all of Saint Peter’s athletics, and she raised the salaries for sports medicine department positions after learning one such job went vacant all of last school year due to uncompetitive pay.
Paul notes that former Peacocks have been clamoring for additional alumni events, and she is confident the men’s basketball team will sell more than 40 season tickets this coming campaign (a digital ticketing service now handles such matters, instead of Paul’s husband). The program, meanwhile, earned a larger operating budget, which comes with hope of prolonged success. “They did something really extraordinary for us,” Cornacchia says of Saint Peter’s basketball. “And I’m convinced we’re going to be back.”
Adds Paul: “In order to maintain and sustain this excitement, we just gotta keep winning.”
Returning to the NCAA Tournament will not be easy for SPU after the men’s basketball team underwent numerous off-season changes.
Several key players transferred, including Banks (St. Bonaventure), Edert (Bryant), KC Ndefo (Seton Hall), Matthew Lee (Missouri State), and twins Hassan and Fousseyni Drame (La Salle). Holloway became the head coach at his alma mater, Seton Hall—an expected and typical rise up the ranks when a small-school coach shines at the Big Dance. Jersey City native Bashir Mason succeeded Holloway. “Another great coach,” Cornacchia says. “He’s gonna show us a lot of great things to come.”
With a turned-over roster and coaching staff in place and a new school year underway, growth at Saint Peter’s University is still a work in progress. It has been less than a year since the epic NCAA Tournament appearance, leading Paul to wonder what gains have yet to be reaped or realized. “There are so many things that we can’t yet identify as a result of this run,” she claims.
While immeasurable, Cornacchia is certain that pride—or “strut,” as the Peacocks call it—is at an all-time high across SPU’s campus. “Everybody here now has a kind of renewed sense of commitment to the institution,” he says. “We’re always a proud institution, but even more so now. People know us now.”
Cornacchia went on to say that last year’s tough, confident team properly represented not only Saint Peter’s, but Jersey City and the Garden State as a whole. “It truly was a unifying event for the campus community and the surrounding Jersey City community,” Paul concurs.
While many of the faces that made that happen are now gone, they are certainly not forgotten. Paul insists that they never will be at Saint Peter’s.
“Their impact on the university will forever be felt, and we will celebrate them,” she says. “We will continue to celebrate them. They’ve left a lasting legacy on Saint Peter’s—on the men’s basketball program and the university as a whole. Nothing can take that away from them.
“We are so proud of them.”Click here to leave a comment