Saint Mary's Omar Samhan, center, hoists the trophy with his team after Saint Mary's defeated Gonzaga 81-62 in an NCAA college basketball game for the championship of the West Coast Conference tournament Monday, March 8, 2010, in Las Vegas.
Omar Samhan practically floated down the Orleans Arena hallway with a net around his neck when Mickey McConnell rushed up from behind, jumped and joyously shoved his Saint Mary's teammate, nearly knocking him down.
McConnell matched his career high with 26 points, Ben Allen added a career-best 20 and Saint Mary's upset the 18th-ranked Zags 81-62 Monday night, winning the West Coast Conference tournament title game with stunning decisiveness.
Jorden Page scored 11 points and Samhan had nine points and seven rebounds for the Gaels (26-5), who earned the sixth NCAA berth in the small Bay Area school's history with a stellar shooting performance against top-seeded Gonzaga (26-6), the 10-time regular-season WCC champions.
Samhan, one of just two seniors in uniform for the Gaels, said he wanted this win "more than anything else in my life."
When the on-court celebration with dozens of their traveling fans finally ended in an arena nearly filled with Gonzaga supporters, the Gaels could finally ponder what they accomplished — even while thinking ahead to a week of celebrations in the verdant East Bay hills.
"The last two years, we've been sitting there on Selection Sunday, hoping and waiting," Samhan said. "One year we were in, one year we weren't. This year, we wanted to make sure."
Saint Mary's won the WCC tournament for just the second time since it began in 1987, beating Gonzaga for the first time in 10 tourney meetings — and it did it with an all-around impressive offensive game that included 68 percent shooting in the second half.
McConnell and Allen hit four 3-pointers apiece, propelling the Gaels to a first-half lead before an electric 18-7 run down the second-half stretch. McConnell credited his offensive flair to his talks with Bennett and Samhan after he failed to score in the Gaels' loss at Gonzaga earlier this season.
"I tried to be aggressive from the get-go, and luckily the shots went in," said McConnell, who jumped over press row to hug his parents before accepting the tournament MVP award. "I got a couple of open looks I wouldn't normally get."
Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett has been chasing the Gonzaga powerhouse for nearly a decade, establishing a recruiting pipeline to Australia and generally trying anything to become the closest thing to a rival for Gonzaga. When he finally caught the Bulldogs, even for a game, Bennett couldn't believe it just yet.
"It hasn't really set in," Bennett said. "It's not like we've done this a whole bunch of times. I was excited with about a minute left because, hey, we're getting this one done."
Saint Mary's lost 83-58 to Gonzaga in last year's tournament title game in Las Vegas, and subsequently were denied an at-large NCAA berth. But even after losing stars Patty Mills and Diamon Simpson from last year's 28-7 team, these Gaels rebounded from two decisive regular-season losses to the Zags with a landmark victory in school history.
"It's hard to get to this position, and this group was finally able to knock the door down," Bennett said. "It feels great to beat the best team. It makes it a little more special for us."
Steven Gray scored 16 points and Matt Bouldin added 14 for Gonzaga, which had won nine of the last 11 WCC tournaments. Elias Harris managed just eight points on 3 of 13 shooting, and the Bulldogs couldn't match Saint Mary's second-half rally.
Gonzaga likely is still headed back to the NCAAs, but it won't get the WCC's automatic bid for just the third time in 12 years.
"They did lots of penetrating and hitting the 3s," Gray said. "We were getting caught off screens. It hurts to see them (celebrate). There's so many things you wish you could change."
The win was redemption for a string of entertaining teams led by Bennett and dotted with Australians. They've included high-scoring point guard Mills, who failed in his attempt to jump to the NBA this year, and current players Allen, Page and Matthew Dellavedova, who had seven points and six assists.
"We knew we were in for a tough game," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "They were hungry and desperate, with an NCAA tournament bid on the line. We didn't do a good job moving the basketball, and Saint Mary's stepped up and just made shot after shot."
While Gonzaga's thousands of traveling fans drowned out the smaller Bay Area contingent before the game, Saint Mary's made an outstanding start. McConnell hit a high-arching 3-pointer from well behind the NBA line to put the Gaels up 12-7 early, and they never trailed in the half while taking 10 more shots than Gonzaga and making just two turnovers.
After Demetri Goodson put the Zags ahead on the first possession of the second half, Saint Mary's moved back ahead 46-40 on McConnell's layup with 12:05 left, and Samhan didn't end up hurting the Gaels when he got a technical foul on the next possession for shoving Robert Sacre out of his way.
"Sacre was talking a lot before the game," Samhan said with a grin. "But we won."