Community rallies behind Gaels

MORAGA, Calif. -- Without a floor to rush, the fans who congregated at Saint Mary's College for the NCAA tournament watch party crowded into the chapel courtyard only to find, of all things, an unsteady hand.

Shortly after Omar Samhan poured in 32 points and Mickey McConnell banked in a go-ahead 3-pointer, Brother Dominic Berardelli was still trembling with nervous excitement as he clutched a long pole and struggled to hook it up to the nearly 150-year-old bell.

Eventually, the 72-year-old wearing a black robe and white collar got to make some serious noise.

"We started pulling that sucker," said Berardelli, the special assistant to the college's president. "We don't ring that bell often; only on very special occasions. It doesn't get rung any old time."

Ding-dong, Saint Mary's won its first NCAA tournament game in 51 years Thursday, and beating Villanova in the second round gave the small Catholic-school program its first victory against a top-10 team.

There's a saying they like using on this picturesque, Spanish Colonial-style campus nestled in the foothills of Northern California. As Samhan declared on a recent video blog entry from Providence, R.I.: "God is a Gael."

When the team made its triumphant return home Saturday night, having made the Sweet 16 as a No. 10 seed, sleepy Moraga -- about 25 miles east of San Francisco -- came alive.

Berardelli grabbed a bullhorn to update fans on the status of the team's arrival on campus as fans gathered near McKeon Pavilion and the time pushed past 11 p.m.

Once he announced that the bus had turned onto Saint Mary's Road, many ran to the school's main entrance and found that the fire truck and police cars that escorted the Gaels back were blasting their sirens and laying on their horns.

The hundreds who lined the road mobbed the players at the door of the charter bus and chanted coach Randy Bennett's name. It took the team nearly an hour to get back to the locker room.

Samhan, who had come off the bus holding a camcorder to document the wild scene, was so fired up afterward that he went into the gym and put up shots until 3 a.m.

"There's such a sense of community," Samhan said. "The community feels it's in the Sweet 16."

On Monday, Eamon Murphy set up a tent looking out toward that main entrance and did a brisk business selling Sweet 16 shirts that started at $29 each. The most popular item was the $32 shirt that screamed "Giant Killers" as well as the 75-68 final score of the Villanova upset.

Murphy graduated from Saint Mary's 24 years ago, but he still was able to greet numerous customers by their first names.

"Small campus," he shrugged, as he manned one of the busiest destinations of the day for a school at which the enrollment is only about 3,500 and everyone seems to know everyone else.

Senior Jen Canfield, who waited patiently in line to buy her merchandise, was a member of the GaelForce student section. Sure enough, she's friends with Samhan and said they hung out the previous night.

"Yesterday, he logged onto Facebook and said, 'Oh, my God, I have like 400 friend requests,'" said Canfield, who also noticed that Samhan was featured on the front page of ESPN.com.

"That's crazy. He's a Saint Mary's student."

Even Samhan, a charismatic 6-foot-11 center who thrives on attention, has been blown away by the reception he has received around town recently.

In front of his off-campus apartment, he said, people in cars recognize him and honk their well-wishes. There's the fan who started snapping pictures of him with a cell phone camera while Samhan was in line getting something to eat.

And then there was the guy who came up to Samhan at a grocery store and said that he recently had lost his job but that watching the Gaels this past weekend cheered him up.

"It's so intimate," Samhan said of the school. "If I'm warming up before a home game, I know just about everyone's name in the gym on a personal level."

It's that family atmosphere that has made Saint Mary's a comfortable place for the five Australians on the team. Every time one of them scores, the GaelForce unleashes cheers of "Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!"

They come to this particular part of the country not only to improve their game under Bennett and try to help win a championship but also because word has gotten back home that Saint Mary's is the place to be for an Aussie baller.

"That sort of homey feel of this place is really special," said freshman guard Matthew Dellavedova, one of the team's imports from the Australian Institute of Sport.

And of late, you can hear what makes it special, as well.

Berardelli couldn't remember the most recent time the old bronze bell had been rung before last week. Students asked him during the games if he would ring it win or lose, and he insisted it would happen only if the Gaels won.

With Richmond and Villanova both having fallen, Berardelli sounded as if he could get used to more of the bell of Saint Mary's.

"After the Baylor game, we're going to hit it again," he said, smiling.

Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at diamond83@gmail.com.