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Samhan revels in Wildcats' single coverage, carries Gaels to Sweet 16

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Omar comin', yo.

In the hardened streets of The Wire's semi-fictional Baltimore, that simple phrase announced gun-toting drug-stash robber Omar Little's presence and always sent bodies scrambling. While Saint Mary's center Omar Samhan may not (yet) have the street cred of his TV namesake, his presence in the paint here Saturday had the same chilling effect on Villanova.

Samhan spent two hours brandishing his own weapons -- nimble feet, deft hands and an old-school post game. 'Nova never found an answer and Samhan's 32 points (on 13-of-16 shooting) and seven rebounds were the driving force in the 10th-seeded Gaels' 75-68 win, sending them to the Sweet 16.

"I got to watch him [Thursday against Richmond], so I knew. We knew," said Villanova coach Jay Wright of the challenge his team would face in the post. "I watch him on TV and he looks good, but he looks way better in person."

It's hard to look better in any medium than Samhan did on Saturday. How easy did it seem against the gritty-but-size-challenged Wildcats? Samhan, half-jokingly, said he was disappointed that he missed three shots, chiding himself for taking a couple of unnecessary fadeaways in the process.

When asked on Friday, Samhan said he hoped Villanova doubled him because it would open things up for the Gaels' perimeter shooters, but added with a bit of a twinkle in his eye that if they didn't double him, "they'd get 30." Villanova stuck with its plan to single Samhan, and "got" a bucket more than that.

"It's either they want the other guys to try to beat them, or they don't think I'm that good," Samhan teased about the strategy to play him straight up in the post. "Either one's a bad idea."

Samhan's dominance was the main theme, but the game had many subplots that decided it. Mickey McConnell's forced 3-pointer that banked in cleanly off glass and broke a 65-all tie with 1:17 left undoubtedly was the biggest moment, but the contest may have been inexorably altered in the first half with some deft substitutions by Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett.

After Samhan, who scored eight of Saint Mary's first 16 points, picked up his second foul on a very questionable charge with 11:25 left in the half, he went to the bench. Villanova soon ripped off six quick points to tie the game at 17.

Sensing the momentum change, Bennett reinserted Samhan, who helped spearhead a 10-2 Gaels spurt before again finding the pine. Samhan stayed on the bench until 'Nova cut a 12-point deficit in half with 1:24 left, then re-entered in time to notch a 3-point play that helped the Gaels take a 38-31 lead into the break.

It was an educated gamble by the Gaels' head man that clearly paid off. "If it would have stayed at 12, it would have been alright. But they cut into it, and I feel we're a much better team with Omar on the floor." Bennett said. "I just wanted to go into halftime with a lead."

Because Samhan has dealt with foul trouble all season, Bennett said he felt comfortable letting his star senior find his way through the latter moments of the half when the need arose.

"It all has to do with what the [other] team's running, if they're putting him in [tough] defensive situations," Bennett said. "I wanted to see if they were going to go at him. They didn't go at him that hard, so we were able to hide him a little bit on defense."

That accurate critique of the Wildcats' first-half effort was rendered obsolete after halftime, when Villanova ratcheted up its intensity and turned what was fairly comfortable tempo for the Gaels into a high-pressure, Big East-style grind. That made Bennett's first-half gambit to preserve the lead look prescient and also underscores the contributions of the rest of the Gaels.

To support Samhan, 6-foot-11 forward Ben Allen pitched in with eight rebounds, six on the defensive glass. Reserve Beau Levesque played a season-high-tying 13 minutes for the second straight game. Besides the crucial banked-in 3-pointer, McConnell combined with backcourt mate Matthew Dellavedova for 29 points, seven boards and five assists.

Still, the story was Samhan. Villanova tried at least five different post defenders on him and nothing worked. He beat Mouphtaou Yarou with quickness, Antonio Pena with size and Taylor King with power. Wright rode his plan to shackle the perimeter Gaels as long as he could and then finally started throwing some wrinkles at Samhan, but Saint Mary's poise and execution -- and a touch of good fortune -- was just enough.

"He's such a classic post player, old school, just great hands," Wright said. "We had him trapped and he spun on Reggie Redding, went baseline under the basket. All the little things. He was so good. Great big man.

"It was our plan to try to guard him one-on-one," Wright added. "[We knew] we're probably not going to be able to, [but we decided not to] blitz him in the first half where they can adjust at halftime. We did everything [we could]. It just didn't work."

Baylor, beware: Omar's comin' to Houston.

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