Published March 20, 2010
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Omar Samhan was an unstoppable Gael force. The only time the Saint Mary's star slowed down was to enjoy the moment.
"Did it really happen?" he shouted outside the locker room. "We won? For real?"
For real, Omar.
Samhan's ascension into national prominence is blasting off — and so is Saint Mary's run in the NCAA tournament as the Gaels are improbably headed to the round of 16.
Samhan played the game of his career on basketball's biggest stage, finishing with 32 points and seven rebounds to lead 10th-seeded Saint Mary's past Villanova 75-68 on Saturday and on to Houston for the South Regional's Sweet 16.
"Number One. Best win ever. Quote it," Samhan said. "Omar Samhan said, 'Best win ever.' It was."
Fitting for a team stocked with Australians, Saint Mary's (28-5) went way, way long for its winning shot.
Mickey McConnell stopped and fired a 25-footer that followed the path of the Gateway Arch and banked high off the glass and in to give Saint Mary's a 68-65 lead with 1:15 left.
"I got a little separation so I had an open look," a smiling McConnell said. "So I just let it go and luckily the backboard was there."
Samhan used a two-handed stuff to turn back Reggie Redding and McConnell made both ends of a 1-and-1 to make it 70-65 and turn most of a packed crowd into the country's biggest collection of Saint Mary's fans.
The Gaels, from Moraga, Calif., north of Oakland, will play third-seeded Baylor on Thursday.
"Nobody expected us to be in this situation when we started the year," coach Randy Bennett said. "Maybe the guys did, but I think even they would admit we were a little unsure."
The Wildcats (25-8) made an early exit a year after they played in the Final Four. They started 20-1 and collapsed at the end.
Scottie Reynolds, who put Villanova in the Final Four last season with a last-second basket against Pittsburgh, was a big reason why the Wildcats are heading home early. He missed 9 of 11 shots and scored eight points after a dud game in the tournament opener. He missed 13 of 15 against Robert Morris for a forgettable end to an otherwise stellar career.
Tears streamed from Reynolds' eyes, his lips trembled as he tried to put the loss and his career in perspective.
"There's no shame in losing," Reynolds said. "We came up against a great opponent in a Saint Mary's team who just had our number. We're going to hold our heads up high."
It was Saint Mary's time to go crazy.
Samhan mugged for the fans and tossed a loose ball in the air. He high-fived a ball boy and they embraced for the biggest win in the program's history.
The players kept goofing off in the press conference, whispering to each other while the other was talking. At one point, when McConnell was saying they worked as hard as anyone else, Samhan kept interrupting him, saying, "More. Say, 'More.'" Bennett finally shushed him to stop.
Samhan, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound center, played perhaps the best all-around game of anyone in the tournament so far. His 32 points where one shy of his career high and he made 13 of 16 shots. He'll have plenty to write and videotape for his blog: http://omarsamhan50.wordpress.com/
"Omar's a beast," Saint Mary's forward Clint Steindl said.
He frustrated the Wildcats until late in the second half.
That's when the Wildcats started doing what they do best — run and score on the fastbreak. They rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit with their transition game to tie the score at 51 on Maalik Wayns' perfect pass through the defense to Antonio Pena for a layup. Pena made a free throw for the tie, and Corey Fisher followed with a basket the next time down for a 53-51 Villanova lead.
Neither team gave much the rest of the way.
Saint Mary's had taken a three-point lead when — bam! — the slumping Reynolds nailed his first 3-pointer of the game.
Matthew Dellavedova made an acrobatic play as he dribbled, tripped, retained his dribble, spun around Fisher and hit a 3. Wayns — the Philly freshman seemingly built with a turbo-charged engine — sped to the basket for a layup and sliced it to 64-63 with 3:29 left.
The score was frozen until Steindl made one of two free throws to make it 65-63. Wayns tied it on two free throws.
That's when McConnell fired one that was felt from America to Australia — the Gaels boast five Aussies on their roster — and had the Gaels pointed toward the Sweet 16.
The only time the Gaels advanced past the first round in the NCAA tournament was 1959 when there were only 23 teams in the field. They beat Idaho State to advance to the Elite Eight.
McConnell, the West Coast Conference tournament MVP when the Gaels upset Gonzaga in the title game, finished with 15 points and Dellavedova had 14.
The Gaels held each of Villanova's top three scorers to under double figures. Fisher and Antonio Pena both scored nine points to join Reynolds as a trio of underachievers. Corey Stokes led the Wildcats with 15 points.
"We understand the expectations were much higher for this team," coach Jay Wright said.