College Basketball Nation: Wayne Hunter

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Saint Mary’s never truly believed it could get in as a bubble team once it lost at Portland in mid-February.

The Gaels had to earn the bid the hard way –- by winning the WCC tournament and slaying the Gonzaga dragon.

[+] EnlargeOmar Samhan
Stew Milne/US PresswireOmar Samhan scored 29 points and had 12 rebounds in a first round victory for St. Mary's.
They did. Saint Mary’s hasn’t lost since that Feb. 13 game to the Pilots, winning six in a row, including the WCC title game over the Zags in Las Vegas, and then dismantling No. 7 Richmond 80-71 in an NCAA tournament South Regional first round game at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Thursday.

“We knew we weren’t getting in unless we won the tournament,’’ said Saint Mary’s senior Omar Samhan. “I knew we had to beat Gonzaga. They’re a great team. I knew once we beat Gonzaga that we could play with anybody. That helped build our confidence.’’

Samhan, the unquestioned leader of this squad, was a monster in the middle and dominated the Spiders with 29 points, 12 rebounds and made 7 of 10 free throws. Saint Mary’s moves into the second round to play No. 2 seed Villanova on Saturday after the Wildcats squeezed out a win over Robert Morris 73-70 in overtime.

“I told our guys that nobody thinks we’re any good,’’ Samhan said after the WCC win. “We’re not any good. We’re just a bunch of slow white dudes. We have nothing to lose. If we lose by 10, nobody cares. If we get blasted by Villanova nobody cares. Nobody knows where Saint Mary’s is.’’

Well, it’s in Moraga, Calif., and the school is nestled in a beautiful section of the Bay Area in a bit of a valley near Oakland and Berkeley. But he’s right. The respect for Saint Mary’s was fleeting. The Gaels had to win an NCAA tournament game for there to be instant credibility. This is the first win for the program in the NCAAs since 1959 -- the only time the Gaels ever won an NCAA game.

“As a program we need to be able to say we’ve won a game,’’ Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “If we want to see ourselves as a top 25-30 program then you have to be in the final 32. Now there’s data to support it. I had no idea what an NCAA tournament win would feel like. Now I do. It’s an unbelievable feeling.’’

Bennett said getting into the Dance has been a grueling ordeal for the Gaels. Saint Mary’s earned a berth in 2005 and in 2008, the latter as an at-large.

The difference between sweating out Selection Sunday and winning the WCC has been easy to measure. Saint Mary’s spent a few days last week relishing the win. But once the jubilation settled down the Gaels had some of their best days of practice. So when the selection came and the Gaels were a 10 seed (the third straight time) facing Richmond in Providence, the euphoria was short-lived.

“It wasn’t as big a deal with your campus celebrating,’’ Bennett said. “You know you’re in.’’

Saint Mary’s assistant coach Kyle Smith said the bubble talk in recent years had become a bit of a burden.

“It starts to eat at you,’’ Smith said. “Once we won we had good practices, and we came in here playing with confidence.’’

The Gaels played with tremendous balance against the Spiders. They dominated the board (40-17) and when Samhan wasn’t in the game or scoring with his soft touch the outside was wide open for Mickey McConnell and Clint Steindl.

“It’s a better team,’’ Samhan said.

“We don’t rely on one guy. We rely on 11 guys. We’re a true team. We don’t have an all-star guard going to the NBA.’’

Samhan will have to deal with the length of Villanova’s Maurice Sutton and Mouphtaou Yarou Saturday. And McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova will have to attempt to handle Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher in the backcourt, seeing if they can keep them out of the lane.

“Those are the teams we struggle with,’’ said Samhan. The Gaels lost their most athletic guard earlier in the season when Wayne Hunter tore his ACL. “The athletic, quick teams can give us problems. But we’ve got skilled guys. So the question will be can we guard them and will we want it more than them.’’

Villanova probably feels like it has a new life after escaping Robert Morris. Saint Mary’s is playing like it belongs after moving to round two for the first time since 1959.

“We’re going to play the way we always do as a highly efficient offensive team,’’ Bennett said. “I would be more concerned how we’re going to guard them than how we’ll attack them.’’

Saint Mary’s is still playing as a confident, WCC champ. That’s something not too many saw happening, maybe even the Gaels a month ago. But now that they are, they’re feeling somewhat invincible. We’ll see how long that lasts. But one thing is certain, the Gaels’ street credibility among the NCAA should be at an all-time high. This is no longer Gonzaga’s little brother. The Gaels have finally emerged from the shadow.

Observations from Saturday

December, 12, 2009
A few quick hitters on Saturday’s slate:
  • UCLA is officially toast. The Bruins have no shot to get in the NCAA tournament unless they win the Pac-10 tournament. Seriously, even if the Bruins were to win the Pac-10, the question will be what have they done? It’s early but it’s not too soon to announce this after the Bruins were rocked once again in the city of Anaheim, this time in a different venue (Honda Center) and by another team (Mississippi State) by double figures (72-54). The Bruins are now 0-4 in Anaheim.
  • Mississippi State’s Ravern Johnson scored 29 in the convincing win for the Bulldogs. John Riek gets eligible for the Bulldogs next week to add depth to the frontcourt. No one knows if Renardo Sidney will ever play for Mississippi State. Even without him the Bulldogs should be 1-2 in some order with Ole Miss for the SEC West title.
  • Saint Mary’s had a major road win, beating Oregon by five in Eugene, a day after learning guard Wayne Hunter was done for the season with a torn ACL. Hunter had started the first seven games and averaged 11.6 points a game. Omar Samhan scored 22 and, despite a love affair here with Portland and San Diego early, the Gaels look like they may be the real challenger to Gonzaga in the WCC.
  • The Pac-10 continues to be dreadful out of conference as Washington lost to Georgetown in Anaheim, and the aforementioned UCLA and Oregon losses, make the league look even worse. Seriously, there is a power five this season and then the sixth-best conference will either be the A-10 or the MWC. Deal with it. The Pac-10 may be looking at a best-case scenario of two NCAA bids. And the committee may discuss expanding the tournament? To get more mediocrity in the field? No thanks.
  • Georgetown’s Greg Monroe had a super week with 25 points and 15 boards in a win over Butler and then followed that up with 15 points, eight boards and six assists in the win over the Bruins. Monroe’s mate Julian Vaughn showed he can score too with a career-high 18. The Hoyas will be a contender for the Big East title.
  • Kansas blew out La Salle and freshman Xavier Henry scored 31 points with four rebounds and two assists. Can you imagine what Memphis would have been like with Henry, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Roburt Sallie, Willie Kemp and possibly Duke transfer Elliot Williams? It would have happened had John Calipari stayed put instead of going to Kentucky.
  • Butler got a desperately needed win by holding off Ohio State by eight at home. Matt Howard fouled out again though and the Bulldogs have to find a way to stop the insanity of him getting into foul trouble.
  • Ohio State played its first game without Evan Turner and was expectedly erratic. William Buford proved to be the scorer, though, with 20 points.
  • George Mason beat Creighton, easily one of the more disappointing teams in the country now at 3-5. Creighton coach Dana Altman got a technical in the final 18 seconds, which didn’t help. It was Altman’s first technical since 2007.
  • Portland and Pitt got much-needed wins after rough weeks of late.
  • Chris Warren of Ole Miss is showing no signs of his ACL bothering him as he scored 20 against McNeese State and is averaging 17.5 on the season.
  • Western Carolina, picked to win the Southern Conference with the College of Charleston, shocked Louisville 91-83 at Freedom Hall. The Cardinals can’t use the excuse of not having Preston Knowles, Jerry Smith and Peyton Siva when they didn’t have them for the loss to Charlotte. Louisville goes through early-season funks every year under Rick Pitino, but this one seems deeper and their road game on Jan. 2 in Kentucky seems awfully daunting.
  • Kentucky ran away from Indiana in Bloomington, 90-73, behind Eric Bledsoe’s 23. John Wall had "only" 11 points, but had eight assists and only one turnover. Kentucky coach John Calipari said he couldn’t be more thrilled for how his players handled their first true road game. Meanwhile, Indiana may have found a big-time scorer as freshman Maurice Creek went for 31.
  • Wisconsin needed a win after losing at UW Green Bay and the 72-63 victory against rival Marquette will do well for this team’s ego and confidence going forward.
  • Columbia’s Noruwa Agho continues to be one of the best-kept secrets in the country as he made a pair of threes and scored 23 points in a win at Bryant. Agho is shooting over 64 percent on 3s (27 of 42) so far this season.
  • The box score of the day came out of Seton Hall-VMI. The Keydets make teams play uptempo and the Pirates obliged with a 134-107 win. Jeremy Hazell scored 33 while Jamel Jackson scored 40, making 12 of 15 3-pointers. The 134 is the most points scored by the Hall in its 105-year history as was the 241-points combined. Jackson broke the Hall single-game record with 12 3s. By the way, he comes off the bench and was averaging seven points a game entering the day.
  • Oklahoma finally awoke in a game against a significant opponent as Willie Warren went for 27 points in an overtime win at Utah, which had just beaten Michigan at the Huntsman Center earlier in the week.