Commentary

Saint Mary's in the Sweet 16? Why not?

Originally Published: March 20, 2010
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Randy Bennett didn't think of it as a gamble.

[+] EnlargeOmar Samhan
Stew Milne/US PresswireVillanova had no answer for Saint Mary's big man Omar Samhan, who torched the Wildcats for 32 points.

Villanova couldn't stop Omar Samhan once he got the ball in the post, but his minutes in the first half were limited after picking up two fouls. After Villanova cut the Gaels' lead from 12 to six after consecutive 3s from Corey Stokes, however, Bennett put Samhan back in the game.

It was a decision built on a season's worth of faith in Samhan as well as the patience of his team and it's the reason Bennett has been able to coach America's new Sweet 16 sweetheart with such confidence.

The Wildcats scored quickly upon Samhan's return to cut the deficit to four, but Samhan showed no fear of picking up a third foul, remaining aggressive on the offensive end and converting an and-1 to push the lead up to seven. The second half was back-and-forth -- the Wildcats would at one point take the lead -- but going with Samhan at the end of the first half was one of the most critical decisions Bennett made in No. 10 Saint Mary's 75-68 second-round win over No. 2 Villanova at the Dunkin' Donuts Center. The Gaels move on to the South Regional Sweet 16 next Friday in Houston.

"What it shows is the belief that Coach has in me," said Samhan, who scored a game-high 32 points on efficient 13-of-16 shooting. "Coach said, 'Can you get me a bucket without fouling?' I said, 'Yes I can.' Coach's belief in me is inspiring. I want to go out and get a bucket to keep the faith."

Villanova continued to play behind Samhan and early on it didn't matter if Mouphtaou Yarou or Maurice Sutton was guarding him -- neither could handle him.

"He had like 20 at the time and I knew they didn't have a matchup for him so I thought it was our best chance to score," Bennett said. "I didn't think he'd commit a foul. They really didn't have a way to guard him with the personnel they had."

Saint Mary's associate head coach Kyle Smith said Bennett hasn't hesitated in the past to play Samhan with two fouls, so he had no issues with Bennett putting Samhan back in the game for that possession when he sensed the Gaels needed a bucket. It was when Bennett put him in the game with four seconds left in the half that Smith rolled his eyes a bit. That gamble didn't amount to much but it showed even more how much faith Bennett had in Samhan, who picked up only one foul in the second half.

"It's hard to double him," said Saint Mary's guard Mickey McConnell. "We knew he could get a couple of easy buckets and more shots for us if they continued to play him straight up."

Coaches sometimes struggle throughout the season to get a read on their team. You could make the argument that Texas' Rick Barnes never had a sense of how his players would play on a given night. Bennett is locked in to his squad.

[+] EnlargeRandy Bennett
Elsa/Getty ImagesRandy Bennett's Gaels are the first WCC team outside Gonzaga to reach the Sweet 16 since 1990.

Villanova desperately tried to push the tempo and get Saint Mary's to play too fast. But the Gaels didn't take the bait. There were a few times when the Gaels found themselves shooting a bit quickly, but the deep 3s that McConnell, Clint Steindl and Matthew Dellavedova made were more a product of patience.

Bennett said he considers the Gaels an up-tempo team but admitted there are a few teams that they can't play that game with -- one is in their league (Gonzaga); another is Villanova.

"Our guys knew that one pass to one 3-pointer wasn't in our favor," Bennett said. "I told them that if we have a track meet we're going to lose. If we get the same shot with 15 seconds on the shot clock then we have to. They made their runs when we bit on it. This team is smart, really smart guards. It helps when you have smart players. I don't mean book smart, but intelligent players."

If you're looking for a reason to advance Saint Mary's to the Elite Eight in Houston with a win over Baylor, look no further than Samhan's motor skills and post play, the Gaels' 3-point shooting and their patience. But most important, they know who they are.

"We're so unselfish," said Dellavedova. "Whoever is open can get the shot."

That may be true on the perimeter, but the Gaels know they have to get Samhan as many touches as possible.

"We just have to get it inside as much as possible," McConnell said. "If we can do that we can stretch everyone out. We're always confident in Omar's scoring ability."

They should be. Samhan has taken over the NCAA tournament with his ability to score in the low block and his bubbling, open personality that exudes confidence.

Samhan was holding court in the bowels of the Dunkin' Donuts Center Saturday. In his first NCAA tournament appearance two seasons ago, he said he essentially gave one-word answers at the interview podium. He looked out at the blank stares from the media and vowed not to be that person again, especially since he's a communications major.

Now he's brutally honest. He said he knew multiple times throughout the game that he had to be assertive and score.

"It was one of those deals where if I don't score here it's over," Samhan said. "I felt like that, like my season was over if I don't score right here. I must have felt that way six or seven times."

[+] EnlargeOmar Samhan
Elsa/Getty ImagesWhy not Saint Mary's? It's a question Omar Samhan and the Gaels are asking after becoming the first team to punch a ticket to the Sweet 16.
Samhan said he reminded his teammates of a Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight they watched together back in September. He said it was a boring bout with Mayweather's punches lulling his opponent to sleep. He told his teammates that they can't be a razzle-dazzle squad and throw up a lob when they're up five.

"We have to grind it out," Samhan said. "We're not pretty but we're advancing and they're not."

Samhan was saying all this as he showed off his low-top black Adidas shoes with holes in the front. He doesn't tape his ankles, even though he twisted his ankle in the Gaels' semifinal win over Portland in the WCC tournament in Las Vegas two weeks ago.

"You can stick your fingers through the holes, see?" Samhan said as he showed the media that he really does have holes in his shoes. "I'm old-school. Did you see what [Bill] Russell played in and he won 11 NBA championships. His shoes were all right."

Samhan doesn't deviate. He said he hasn't changed these shoes in two years, wearing them for games and conditioning. It's the kind of discipline that the entire Gaels squad employs.

Samhan could have easily morphed into a prototypical new-age center, looking to score facing the basket. He wasn't interested.

"I hate those guys who run around shooting 3s," Samhan said. "You're 6-11, so get your butt in there and take pride in being a big man with your back to the basket. I think it's a lost art."

So is seeing a skilled scoring team that has great balance, patience and smarts.

Bennett said he can't get over how excited the Gael Nation fans -- all of one section strong -- were on Saturday. Some were even crying.

"It's so rewarding that we made so many people so happy," Bennett said.

Why not get greedy and give them more?

"March is such a special time," Samhan said. "We're not really a Cinderella story because that implies luck."

Can Saint Mary's make the Final Four?

"Why not?" Samhan said. "There are 16 teams left. Four of them make the Final Four. Why can't Saint Mary's be one of the four?"

Why not?

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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