PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Saint Mary’s center Omar Samhan warned his mother that the task wasn’t quite as simple as she made it seem. But there was no changing her mind after she opted to skip the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, instead purchasing a plane ticket to attend the Houston Regional.
“She’s like, ‘Yeah, just win two games. I’ll book the ticket,’ ” Samhan said. “My mom has had a flight to Houston since Selection Sunday. I’m glad we’ll be there because she was going either way.”
Samhan and his band of Australian teammates made sure of that Saturday at Dunkin’ Donuts Center with a 75-68 win over No. 2 seed Villanova in an upset reminiscent of Gonzaga’s days as a giant killer.
Reigning from the same league – the West Coast Conference – as the Zags, the 10th-seeded Gaels pulled off the upset by controlling their Big East opponent from start to finish.
Coach Randy Bennett has the program in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1959.
“We’re under the radar as a team,” Bennett said. “Just our players are. They’re better than you think they are.”
Samhan, who had to lose 60 pounds before he could become a WCC star, was the biggest reason. He made 13 of 16 shots and scored 32 points on the heels of a 29-point effort in the first round against Richmond.
Saint Mary’s (28-5) advanced with a roster that includes five Australian players, including three starters.
But the biggest shot of the day was delivered by Mickey McConnell, who banked in a 3-pointer from the left wing with 1 minute, 17 seconds remaining to break a 65-65 tie. The Gaels followed by making 7 of 8 free throws to seal the upset.
“They can play with anybody in the Big East, no doubt,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “So, I would assume if everybody is watching them every night in the East Coast, they probably would have a lot more respect.”
After needing overtime to beat No. 15 seed Robert Morris in the first round, Villanova (25-8) led for less than three minutes.
Three days in the tournament made everyone forget the Wildcats spent the entire season ranked in the top 10. Saint Mary’s held them to 36 percent shooting and won the rebounding battle 33-32.
Villanova star guard Scottie Reynolds was held to eight points.