Monday, March 8, 2010

Saint Mary's stuns Gonzaga to win tourney in Las Vegas

By Anthony Fenech

Monday, March 8, 2010 | 11 p.m.

Finally, the wait was over.

With less than a minute to play in Monday's championship game of the West Coast Conference tournament, Saint Mary's center Omar Samhan took the most gratifying walk of his life.

Showered with a championship mix of cheers, chants and boos, the smiling Gaels senior made his way to the Saint Mary's bench with his team in control of its destiny, then firmly wrapped his arms around head coach Randy Bennett.

"I wanted this more than anything else in my life," Samhan said after the Gaels' 81-62 win over Gonzaga. "I knew that this was not only the biggest game in my life, but it would also define my career here. I'm so fortunate that it came true."

Saint Mary's won't have to wait this year to see whether the NCAA Tournament committee will call its name on Selection Sunday. This year, no Bulldogs team was going to push the Gaels around like it might have in the past.

"This group was able to knock the door down," head coach Randy Bennett said. "I was really proud of our guys. We had a chip on our shoulder all year, they were there last year and these guys were determined."

But pushing back almost proved to be a costly mistake.

Midway through the second half, after leading throughout the first half and carrying the slimmest of leads into the break, Saint Mary's momentum came to a halt.

Samhan, after fouling Gonzaga's Robert Sacre, shoved him, drawing a technical foul and a smattering of boos from the strong contingent of Bulldogs fans at the Orleans Arena.

"When there's blood in the water with that team, it's over, you're done," Samhan said, "So the second he told me to bring it on, I went back at him."

"I told Coach B, 'My bad, I'm sorry,'" he continued. "But we had to take the technical on that one. We weren't backing down tonight."

Minutes after the ensuing free throws cut Saint Mary's six-point lead in half, the Gaels responded with a six-point run of their own.

Then came another six-point run, pushing the lead to double-digits, before Mickey McConnell's icing on the cake: a rainbow three-pointer that buried any chance of a Gonzaga comeback.

McConnell, the Gaels' junior point guard, took home tournament MVP honors with a career-high 26 points, six assists and one turnover, making four of his seven shots from behind the arc.

"I made a conscious effort to be aggressive tonight," he said. "I got a couple open looks I normally wouldn't get and the first half really got me going."

Ben Allen added four three-pointers of his own in the victory, with the Australian senior scoring 20 points and freshman guard Jorden Page, also from Australia, scored 11 points.

Both made crucial plays as Saint Mary's weathered Gonzaga's second-half storm and ultimately pulled away.

"We knew we were going to be in for a tough game," Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. "They were hungry, played with desperation and down the stretch in the second half, just outcompeted us."

After Bennett removed the Gaels' starting five in the waning moments, the group embraced in a huddle on the bench.

On the same Orleans Arena court a year ago, Saint Mary's was blasted by Gonzaga, losing by 25 points in the championship game, and subsequently was passed on for the NCAA Tournament.

"Last year was one of the worst feelings," McConnell said. "We didn't want to leave it up to the committee this year."

And during this regular season, Gonzaga had twice bested Saint Mary's and won the conference title outright by one game.

"The team we beat and the program we beat is a very good program," Bennett said. "It feels good to beat the best team."

Samhan, the reigning WCC Defensive Player of the Year, totaled nine points — all in the second half — collected seven rebounds and had six blocks.

He was not only motivated by the Saint Mary's script on the front of his jersey, but also by a message that was printed inside of his warm-up shirt.

"Not P.O.Y?" the shirt read, as a reference to being passed on for conference Player of the Year honors, which went to Gonzaga's Matt Bouldin. "Keep hating."

In the midst of celebrating on the team's bench, Samhan proudly pulled up his shirt and unveiled the message to Gaels fans.

"I wanted to show it so bad," he said. "Being the MVP means you're No. 1. It's not a stats thing or a personal thing. It's a team thing."

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