PROVIDENCE, R.I. — It's official. This season's Saint Mary's College basketball team will be the one that's talked about for years to come, the one all future Gaels teams will be measured against, the one that finally placed the century-old program in the national spotlight.
And the party's not over yet.
In front of a national television audience and facing arguably its toughest opponent of the season, Saint Mary's delivered a historic 75-68 win over ninth-ranked and second-seeded Villanova on Saturday to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Three weeks after it appeared the Gaels could miss the NCAA Tournament, they have taken their 102-year-old program to unprecedented heights.
Center Omar Samhan had 32 points, including 17 in an electrifying second half. Guard Mickey McConnell added 15, and the Gaels won their second straight game in the South Region. Saint Mary's never had won two NCAA Tournament games in the same year. Its only appearance in the final 16 came in 1959, when only 16 teams participated.
"No. 1. Best win ever. Quote it. Omar Samhan said best win ever," Samhan said when asked if it was the biggest victory in school history. "It was."
Tenth-seeded Saint Mary's, which never had beaten a top-10 opponent previously, now will play third-seeded Baylor, a 76-68 winner over 11th-seeded Old Dominion on Friday at Houston's Reliant Stadium.
The stage will be bigger, the lights will be brighter.
None of it, as of yet, seems to have fazed the Gaels.
"We're an under-the-radar team," said Gaels coach Randy Bennett, whose two tournament wins this weekend were twice as many as any of his predecessors combined. "Just our players are. They're better than you think."
With the game tied at 65, Saint Mary's (28-5) scored seven straight points, including an NBA range 3-pointer by McConnell that banked off the glass. That alone might have had some divine intervention along the way, as Saint Mary's never trailed again.
"I just let it go," McConnell said, "and luckily the backboard was there."
On the next possession, Villanova's Reggie Redding tried to drive the lane. But his shot from under the hoop was rejected by Samhan, who also had seven rebounds and two blocks.
Matthew Dellavedova hit two free throws at the other end to give the Gaels 72-65 lead. Corey Stokes responded with a 3-pointer to cut the lead to four, but Dellavedova hit two more free throws with 11 seconds left to seal the win.
"They can play with anybody in the Big East, there's no doubt," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "They're a very, very good team."
Saint Mary's was doing a solid job of defending in the half-court but ran into trouble when Villanova got out in transition, especially off Gaels turnovers.
Saint Mary's had 11 turnovers by the 7:36 mark of the second half, which turned into 17 points for Villanova. The Wildcats (25-8) also had 10 second-chance points, compared with four for the Gaels.
But the Gaels settled down and had only one turnover in the final five minutes. Villanova shot 36.2 percent for the game with guards Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher going a combined 5-for-24 from the field.
"We've been in situations like that before," said McConnell, who did not have a turnover in 40 minutes. "We knew we had to stay within ourselves and stay composed."
The Gaels took a 33-21 lead in the first half on a layup by McConnell, but the Wildcats responded with an 8-0 run thanks to a pair of 3-pointers from Stokes. But Samhan, who picked up two fouls in the first 8:35, checked into the game with a minute left in the half and immediately converted a 3-point play to settle down things for Saint Mary's.
Samhan did that late in the second half as well and, after the game, threw the ball high in the air and went into the stands to celebrate with a few hundred ecstatic Gaels fans.
"It's the 'midmajor,' we get that label, we get that title," Samhan said. "I was happy we were able to come through not only for the city of Moraga, but for the Bay Area and the fans around the country."
FRIDAY: at Reliant Stadium, Houston: Saint Mary's vs. Baylor, time TBA.
TV: Chs, 5, 13. Radio: 1050-AM