Galloping Gaels back in national spotlight

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Galloping Gaels back in national spotlight

By JOSH DUBOW
AP Sports Writer

MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — It’s been nearly eight decades since Saint
Mary’s got so much attention for going back East to knock off a
national powerhouse.

Long after Slip Madigan loaded his Galloping Gaels onto trains
for cross-country trips to take on college football’s elite, the
basketball team is making its own mark.

Led by a center with old-school post moves and modern
trash-talking skills in Omar Samhan and five Australians, the
10th-seeded Gaels knocked off Richmond and second-seeded
Villanova in Providence, R.I., to advance to the round of 16 for
the first time since the NCAA tournament had only 23 teams back
in 1959.

Next Saint Mary’s will take on third-seeded Baylor Friday in
Houston.

This run has turned the Gaels into one of the tournament
darlings, with fans and media appreciating their underdog status
and unselfish play.

The national spotlight is something new for a program that often
fights for attention in its home market. Often overshadowed by
the two Pac-10 teams – California and Stanford – and six major
pro franchises in the Bay Area, the tiny school of about 3,500
students in the bucolic East Bay hills in the San Francisco area
is in the limelight once again.

Soon after the Gaels wrapped up their 75-68 victory over
Villanova on Saturday, Samhan went into the stands to celebrate
with the small but vocal contingent that made the long trek to
Rhode Island.

“With a small community you know everybody,” Samhan said. “It’s
great. I’m happy for them that they’re able to experience it
with us and I’m happy we were able to do this for Saint Mary’s.
It’s the mid-major, we get that label, we get that title. And I
was happy we were able to come through not only for the city,
but the fans around the country.”

The scene on campus was almost as wild, according to Diana Diaz,
co-president of the Gael Force student supporters and rooting
section. Students screamed out their dorm windows, others honked
horns while driving on campus. Diaz also got to ring the bell on
campus.

“Supposedly the last time it was rung manually was when the Pope
died,” Diaz said. “It’s kind of a big deal.”

The Gaels were greeted by more fans when they returned to campus
late Saturday night with a police and fire truck escort. A few
hundred cheering students and supporters were there when the bus
arrived.

“There were more people out at midnight welcoming the team bus
back than there were in the gym when we were playing games in
2000,” athletic director Mark Orr said.

Now the basketball team is gathering up fans as quickly as the
football team did back in the 1930s during Madigan’s heyday.

Schooled by Knute Rockne as a player at Notre Dame, Madigan
quickly turned the Gaels into a national powerhouse after
arriving in 1921. The Gaels earned a reputation as a giant
killer by beating USC, UCLA, Stanford and California in the
1920s and then became a traveling show in the ’30s.

Saint Mary’s took a cross-country train ride to face powerhouse
Fordham at the Polo Grounds in New York throughout the decade.
The train was equipped with a gym for the players and a bar for
the fans.

The Gaels won their first game against Fordham in 1930, ending a
28-game winning streak for the Rams. Later in the decade, Saint
Mary’s would be greeted by huge parties upon arriving for a game
that was one of the biggest each year in New York.

Few were bigger than the 1936 contest, when Vince Lombardi and
the Seven Blocks of Granite beat Saint Mary’s 7-6 in front of
50,000 fans at the Polo Grounds.

“It was like the old Fordham trips and all that,” Orr said. “The
New York Times, the Boston Globe, all those guys were wondering
where the heck Moraga, Calif., is and who Saint Mary’s is. Saint
Mary’s is a known entity in the West but not in the East.”

The football team had little success after Madigan left in 1940.

The basketball team made it to the NCAA tournament in 1959 led
by future NBA player Tom Meschery. The Gaels beat Idaho State in
their first game for their only tournament win before this year
and then lost 66-46 to eventual champion California in the West
region final.

That just about ended the story of success in major college
athletics until the past few years. The low point came early
last decade. The basketball team went 2-27 in 2000-01, and the
football team was eliminated in 2004 so more resources could be
directed at the other sports.

By then, coach Randy Bennett had started the basketball
turnaround. He looked everywhere for players, especially
Australia, and led the team to an at-large bid into the NCAA
tournament in 2005. The Gaels lost to Southern Illinois in the
first round and followed up with a couple of down years.

But with the arrival of Patty Mills from Australia, the Gaels
made it back to the tournament in 2008 before losing in the
first round to Miami. After Mills starred in the Olympics, the
Gaels were getting even more attention last season. They got off
to an 18-1 start before Mills broke his hand in a loss at
Gonzaga.

Despite a 26-6 record, the Gaels were disappointed after being
left out of the NCAA tournament. With Mills and star forward
Diamon Simpson gone, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year
in Moraga.

Instead, Samhan has carried the Gaels deeper than they have been
in years, with help from point guard Mickey McConnell and the
Australian contingent led by passing big man Ben Allen and
gritty guard Matthew Dellavedova.

“We’re under the radar as a team,” Bennett said. “Just our
players are. They’re better than you think they are.”

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