Saint Mary's shakes off pundits, travel to score first-round upset
Saint Mary's felt slighted by having to fly cross-country and play an early game
The Gaels have great locker-room chemistry -- and it shows on the court
They could knock off another higher seed, shaky-looking Villanova, on Saturday
PROVIDENCE -- In the Saint Mary's locker room, senior center Omar Samhan went audio-visual in explaining motivation. He reached behind a rolling whiteboard and into a locker. "We know what's going on,'' he said. "Look at this.'' With that, he produced a copy of Wednesday's USA Today sports section, which included a long, front-page story on the Richmond Spiders, the team that Saint Mary's was scheduled to play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament here at the Dunkin Donuts Center.
"They make us come all the way out here to play Richmond, and Richmond is already here,'' said Samhan. "Nobody thinks very much of us.''
This lesson was delivered after the Gaels, champions of the West Coast Conference from Moraga, Cal., had ousted Richmond from the tournament with a decisive 80-71 victory late Thursday afternoon, the school's first NCAA tournament win in 51 years. It sounded a note that was played repeatedly in victory.
"I watched ESPN after the selections,'' said senior forward Ben Allen. "None of their analysts had us getting through one game. They didn't show us any respect. That fueled the fire for us. We felt like we could take on anyone in the country. [The Spiders] were just the unlucky ones to get matched up with us in the first game.''
"We talk about it all the time,'' said senior guard Mickey McConnell. "We build on it. We're always the underdog. We were picked to finish fourth in our own conference, but we know we can play with anybody. It gets a little hard to swallow.'' Even in a world made small in countless digital ways, where there are truly no secrets and TMZ can tell you exactly what's in any given celebrity's grocery cart on a Tuesday afternoon (well, that would be true if celebrities shopped for groceries, but you get the idea), it turns out that it is possible for a major college basketball team to hide.
Saint Mary's came into the NCAA tournament with a 27-5 record. The Gaels not only won the West Coast Conference title, they did it with an 81-62 title-game beatdown of Gonzaga, a program respected far and wide for having risen above the level of mere mid-major. Yet they were seeded just 10th, and as Samhan points out with geographic precision, forced to fly across the country for a Thursday afternoon game against a No. 7 seed playing in its own time zone. "No respect,'' says freshman guard Matthew Dellavedova. "Severe motivation.''
Maybe it's that emotion that carried Saint Mary's into the Richmond game. But that's not why the Gaels won. And it's not why Villanova -- beyond fortunate to have escaped from No. 15 seed Robert Morris with its tournament life intact, despite an ugly, unprofessional performance -- should be concerned about Saturday's game.
Saint Mary's is a very dangerous team. And a fascinating one, too.
Let's start with the fascinating: They are a stew of East and West, and I'm not taking about California and New York. The Gaels, whose campus is located east of Oakland, have six roster players from California, two from Arizona, one from Texas ... and five from Australia. Three of the Aussies are starters: The 6-11 Allen, who transferred two years ago from Indiana; the 6-4 Dellavedova, a scraggly-haired grinder who plays with a black-and-white mouthguard and his jersey hanging off one shoulder; and skinny 6-7 sophomore Clint Steindl, a catch-and-shoot three-point specialist.
McConnell is the point guard. Samhan, a 6-11 center with a wide array of old-school drop steps and shoulder fakes, is the leading scorer, at more than 20 points a game. He's also good at explaining how it works when you half-fill a locker room with U.S. players and then top it off with Australians. (Which, it should be noted, is nothing new at Saint Mary's; the Gaels and assistant coach David Patrick have been signing players out of the Australian Institute of Sport for nearly a decade).
"It's fun, we learn their culture and they learn ours,'' says Samhan. "We start using their words. I find myself saying, 'Pass the sauce,' instead of 'Pass the ketchup.'''
What do the Aussies learn from the Americans? Samhan pauses, then yells across the locker room to Allen. "Ben, what do you guys learn from us?''
Allen says, "Ranch.''
Samhan says, "Oh yeah. They don't have ranch dressing in Australia. Now these guys put ranch on everything, even pizza. And they're finally starting to call French fries fries instead of chips.''
Dellavedova says, "Actualy, it's a huge rivalry in the locker room. We don't get along at all. It's a big competition. Nahhhhh.''
You can guess all day about whether this type of forced bonding of cultures helps foster a sense of team. (And we shouldn't get carried away; Australia and the USA are different, but not exactly opposites). What's indisputable is this: Saint Mary's is a very efficient team. They pointedly do not look to run excessively, but instead they execute their halfcourt offense to a fault, often scoring near the end of the shot clock.
"We've gotten so that we can use the clock, and then attack,'' says head coach Randy Bennett. "It gives us some advantages.'' Like: Modern basketball teams are not enamored with defending for 30 seconds or more. They would prefer to pressure quickly and create a turnover, or just yield and play offense. And if this seems archaic from Saint Mary's perspective, Bennett points out: "We do average almost 80 points a game.'' (79.5 to be exact, but with five times over 90).
In Samhan and Allen, the Gaels have large people with good hands and vision. They are not flyers, but they are athletic in other ways. The Gaels' size will bother Villanova.
It's easy to see how 'Nova will attack Saint Mary's: Relentless ball pressure. It will be up to McConnell and Dellavedova to weather the attack and find holes.
It is a fascinating matchup: A traditional East Coast basketball power from the presumptive Best Conference in the Country (although early NCAA results are trending away from that), a team that reached the Final Four a year ago, against a largely unknown West Coast school with three starters from thousands of miles away.
Know this: Saint Mary's will again be the underdog. And they love it that way. "We mean business,'' says Allen. "We'll take on anyone.''
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