For St. Mary's, getting in was the hard part

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.

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.