Their teammates thought they were crazy. How could a MAAC school from New Jersey with run-down athletic facilities, an enrollment of less than 2,200 undergraduates, and a tiny campus that few have ever heard of make a run in the 2022 NCAA Tournament?
When you’ve already done the impossible once though, you gain a firm belief that you can do it again. That’s the mindset of Saint Peter’s men’s basketball players and twin brothers, Foussenyi and Hassane Drame – two of the driving forces behind the Peacocks’ historic run that once again gave new meaning to the term March Madness.
The Drame brothers, from the West African country of Mali, are no stranger to the role of the underdog. During exclusive Outsider interviews with each of them on Tuesday, both Drame brothers referenced their experience playing for their home country in the FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup multiple times during our conversations. It’s not only a significant point of pride that they represented Mali, but in a way, that’s where their journey to this year’s Elite 8 began as well.
The Drame Twins Make Basketball History With Mali National Team
In 2016, the Drame twins moved across the Atlantic from West Africa to Long Island, New York. The two 6’7″, 200-pound forwards grew up playing soccer, but began to play basketball in Mali as young teenagers at 13. The game of basketball is what brought the twins overseas to attend Our Savior New American School in Long Island. They played on the school’s soccer and basketball teams while learning English for the first time and getting used to American culture.
By the time they were seniors and about to graduate though, they’d head back across the Atlantic. Fousseyni and Hassane Drame had proudly been selected to represent Mali in the FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup. As much of an honor as it was, no one gave them a chance in the tournament.
In fact, no African team had ever medaled in any major international basketball tourney. As the 19th largest country in Africa by population, Mali even struggled in African continental basketball competitions. Further, many of their high school classmates thought it was a waste of time. But that didn’t matter to the twins because they believed in each other and their country.
“Nothing is like playing for your country. When it comes to playing for your national team, it’s more than just basketball,” Hassane said about representing Mali. “That’s something you live forever. My experience with the national team was unbelievable and something I will never ever forget.”
When speaking to Fousseyni, he made sure to point out that Saint Peter’s Cinderella run in the NCAA Tournament wasn’t the first time he and his brother had made history. The Drame brothers chose to tune out their doubters as they shocked the basketball world in the summer of 2019.
Mali beat the likes of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Puerto Rico, and France – all well-established countries when it comes to the game of basketball – on the way to the Under-19 World Cup final. The Drame twins and Mali would fall to the United States in the championship. Considering the U.S. team was made up of future NBA pros, there’s zero shame in it. Just simply making it to the final was unheard of for African teams, especially for a country that had never even qualified for the U-19 World Cup until that year.
“We were fortunate enough to go to the World Cup U-19,” Fousseyni said during our conversation. “We beat Canada, France, which no African team had done it before and we made history. No African team [had ever] reached the quarterfinal, but we kept writing history – went to the quarterfinal, went to the semifinal. And then we played the U.S. in the final, which the majority of that team is playing in the [NBA] right now. We lost to them, but I can say that was one of the biggest historical moments for me and my brother’s career so far. But the second biggest, of course, is these last two weeks [in the NCAA Tournament].
Staying Faithful to Themselves and Saint Peter’s University
While speaking with Hassane, he shared that he and his brother brought their World Cup experience and that same pride to Saint Peter’s. Following their success in international play, larger universities reached out to Hassane and Fousseyni in an attempt to recruit them. But they chose to stay faithful to the Peacocks program and head coach Shaheen Holloway.
“We stayed faithful to Saint Peter’s because we knew our vision,” Hassane explained. “We knew what we wanted to accomplish in this school. The first day we stepped [on campus], people that met us first, we were telling them about this day. We came here to put this school on the map. We weren’t shy or scared of saying it in front of people. But at that time, people were looking at us like we have two heads, like we are crazy.
“The journey to Saint Peter’s was not easy at all, but we came here with a winning mentality. Like no matter what we do, we came with one mission – to change the program. And god bless us, we had a coach that had the same mindset.”
The brothers had two main criteria when they chose to attend Saint Peter’s. Fousseyni and Hassane wanted to go to a school where they could help build the university’s profile. They weren’t looking for a finished product where as Hassane said, “everything was already done.” They wanted to turn things around themselves along with their teammates and coaching staff. Second, they wanted to play together. It was a gamble to pick Saint Peter’s, but the twins bet on themselves and won.
“Nothing is like playing, fighting, going to war with somebody you know, especially someone that is your blood. Since day one in the womb of your mother you’re together, you know? No matter how things go down, you’re looking at your left, right, front, back, and then knowing that no matter what that somebody’s got your back. It pushes you to work even harder,” Fousseyni said of he and his brother’s basketball journey together.
Staying Positive and Believing In Their Journey
The Drame twins’ freshman year was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and their sophomore year didn’t go to plan. The Peacocks lost in the MAAC semifinal and missed out on the NCAA Tournament. But their junior seasons would be a much different story.
Early on this season, Saint Peter’s struggled out of the gate though. They took some bad losses and had numerous ups and downs to start the year. However, the brothers constantly told their teammates to “keep their heads up.” Whether simply positive thinking or having a premonition that big things were on the horizon, Fousseyni and Hassane kept pushing for greatness. People on the outside looking in may not have seen what the twins saw in Saint Peter’s, but outside opinions didn’t matter.
“We’ve always believed in our journey,” Hassane said. “At one point [early in the season], we were very down, but we stayed positive. We tried to bring everybody together and remind everybody of our goal and journey.
“Our teammates thought we were crazy. If you asked them deep down if they thought it was possible [to make the NCAA tourney], they’d say the same thing. We always knew, we just gotta believe and work on it. The thing is, we had a coach that always believed in us too, and he don’t back down. So that was one of our strengths too to even push our teammates to believe we could do it.”
Making History (Again) During March Madness
As the season churned along, Saint Peter’s started to find their groove. They’d enter conference tourney play as the two-seed in the MAAC Tournament. The Peacocks were playing good ball at the right time as they marched through the tourney and became MAAC champions for only the fourth time in school history. Additionally, three of the Drames’ teammates made the MAAC All-Championship Team. That group included players Matthew Lee, KC Ndefo, and Doug Edert who would become a household name – along with his mustache – during the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
However, when Selection Sunday arrived on March 13, the NCAA committee wasn’t exactly kind to Saint Peter’s. Not only did the university receive a No. 15-seed bid to the tournament, they drew No. 2-seed Kentucky in the first round. Right out of the gate, the Peacocks would face one of college basketball’s premier programs. Yet when the clock struck zero four days later in Indianapolis, Saint Peter’s pulled off the unthinkable. The small Jersey City university had upset the Wildcats 85-79. The Drame twins and their teammates busted brackets across the nation as they earned giant killer status. With that first round upset alone, the school would go down in tournament history, but they weren’t done.
Once again, Saint Peter’s would be the underdog in the second round against No. 7-seed Murray State. The Racers had only lost three games all season, but the Peacocks would give them their fourth. The 70-60 victory would punch Saint Peter’s ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time ever. Additionally, it was only the third time a 15-seed had ever made it to the Sweet 16. There was more to come.
Saint Peter’s had survived the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, which very few outside of the Peacocks’ locker room thought would happen. Next up, they’d matchup against No. 3-seed Purdue who were also heavily favored to win. The game came down to the wire, but a late push would lead to another huge upset and another win for Coach Holloway and his team. Saint Peter’s had officially made college basketball history as the only No. 15-seed to ever earn a spot in the Elite 8.
If Fousseyni and Hassane Drame and their teammates hadn’t already captured the nation’s attention before, they had now. Americans love underdogs and college basketball fans adore a great Cinderella story during March Madness. Arguably Saint Peter’s had already given us the greatest Cinderella story in tournament history as such a low-seeded team, but could they go even further and make the Final Four?
Sadly, they met their match when they faced the North Carolina Tar Heels, their second blue blood opponent in four games. The Peacocks lost by 20 points to bring their National Championship hopes to an end. But they’ll be remembered for decades to come for their historic run in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. That’s something that the Drame twins are just now realizing as they’ve been back on Saint Peter’s campus this week as I caught up with them after their classes on Tuesday.
“The reaction to [Saint Peter’s historic tournament run] has been incredible,” Fousseyni shared. “Everyone’s been very supportive.
“From this morning when I woke up, I’m starting to realize how big it is, you know? I realize how far we’ve come and I’m realizing how big of a deal it is.”
Hassane mirrored his brother’s comments when we spoke separately about an hour later. Everyone who doubted them before has changed their tune.
“No school from New Jersey had ever reached that level we did,” Hassane added. “So that’s something I’m looking at like, ‘Damn. Wow.’ Like to be honest, we did it. All the hard work and patience and through everything [it all paid off].
“That experience (the 2022 NCAA Tournament) kind of taught me two big lifetime lessons that I’ll never forget. The first lesson, the past will always be the past. Do not focus on that. Always focus on trying to prove yourself more and more, and don’t get satisfied. So that’s number one. And number two is I will always be proud of myself and the hard work that I put in to help a tiny school in Jersey City that most people don’t even know to put them in the promise land.”
The Drame Twins Say This Is Just the Beginning, For Saint Peter’s and For Their Careers
The first day Fousseyni and Hassaen Drame committed to Saint Peter’s, they posted a video introducing themselves to the fanbase. In it, as wild as it may have seemed at the time, the brothers promised it was the beginning of something special. Two seasons later, their guarantee came into fruition, but the brothers say there’s still more to come.
“As long as me and my brother are on the same team, no matter where we are, we’re going to make the best out of it,” Hassane said when talking about their future in basketball. “That’s one of the reasons we stick together. No matter what type of program we’re in, as long as we keep working hard and believe in what we do good things will happen.”
Once again, even speaking separately, Fousseyni shared similar thoughts to his brother. Saint Peter’s amazing NCAA Tournament may be over, but the Drame twins aren’t done with the surprises just yet.
“We said there is a lot of surprises coming,” Fousseyni recalled about their first day on campus. “This is the beginning of the surprise that we’ve been telling people. There are more and more surprises coming up. This is a beginning. Of course, we put the school on the map [during the 2022 NCAA Tournament] definitely, but there is more surprises to come.”
After years of rising above their underdog status, at this point, you’d be a fool to doubt them going forward.