Up-and-Down Year for the Gaels

By Jordan Grief '09

The men's basketball team played into the quarterfinals of the National Invitational Tournament in March, beating Washington State and Davidson at home before falling on the road to the SDSU Aztecs 70–66.

The postseason play ended a roller-coaster season for the Gaels, who jumped to an 18–1 start and were ranked No. 22 in the nation in late January. In a Jan. 29 game against Gonzaga in Spokane, Wash., sophomore point guard Patty Mills broke his hand in a fall.

The Gaels collapsed after Mills' injury, losing to the Zags and then to Portland in Portland two days later.

Coach Randy Bennett sent out different starting line-ups to fill the hole left by Mills' absence, and the team finally gelled, led by senior forward Diamon Simpson and junior center Omar Samhan. The Gaels ended West Coast Conference play at 10–4, finishing second behind Gonzaga. Their overall record, including postseason play, was 28–7.

Mills returned to play in the WCC Tournament in March in Las Vegas, where Saint Mary's beat Portland handily but struggled against Gonzaga in the final, losing 83–58.

Passed up by the NCAA Tournament, the Gaels were selected by the NIT as a No. 2 seed. They beat Washington State 68–57, then pulled off a thrilling 80–68 victory at home on March 23 against Davidson and the nation's leading scorer, Stephen Curry. McKeon Pavilion was packed to the rafters, and students swarmed the court at the end of the game, urged on by Mills and other players.

"I don't know if I remember a game that's been a better atmosphere" Bennett said after the game. "I'm pretty sure I've never been involved in a game in here that's had more hype and more attention. To play in a game like that, to play well, it makes you really proud of your kids.

"What a great way for our seniors to get to play their last home game here," Bennett added. "To end in this type of game, it's like a storybook."

The team was the only one in the conference to have three First Team All-WCC selections — Simpson, Samhan and Mills.

Simpson was named the WCC Defensive Player of the Year and selected for the College All-Star Game.

This was Simpson's second straight year as WCC Defensive Player of the Year. He now also carries a number of Saint Mary's all-time records, including 1,130 rebounds, 239 blocks and 174 steals.  

Samhan finished second on the team in scoring and rebounds. His 13.7 points per game ranked 10th in the WCC, while his 9.2 rebounds per game was third in the conference.

Mills got a second straight First Team All-WCC selection despite missing the last nine games of the season. Before the injury, Mills led the Gaels with 18.7 points per game, 77 assists, and 47 steals.