HOUSTON (AP)—With his dominating play and crackling one-liners when he talks or tweets, Omar Samhan is making sure that people take notice of surprising Saint Mary’s.
The 6-foot-11 center is certainly having fun during the Gaels’ NCAA tournament run into the round of 16, where they will play Baylor on Friday night in the Bears’ home state.
When Samhan stepped into the spotlight shining on the interview podium Thursday, he stopped before sitting and waved to everyone. He later made sure the television cameras were aimed at him before professing his love to singer Taylor Swift.
“He’s enjoying this, which he should be,” Saint Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said. “He’ll be ready to compete. He knows this is the time to have some fun, enjoy the moment. … O’s smart. He knows the deal.”
The 10th-seeded Gaels (28-5) had won only one NCAA tournament game, back in 1959, before beating higher seeds Richmond and Villanova last week. Samhan made 24 of 32 field goals for 61 points with 19 rebounds, playing as well on the court as he performs off of it.
“When it’s time to play, you better bring it,” Samhan said. “Because if you don’t, they revert back to this: `He was having too much fun and he wasn’t focused.”’
In contrast to Samhan’s often-comedic interaction on the podium with two of his teammates, the Baylor trio led by senior guard Tweety Carter already appeared to be in game mode. The three rarely smiled while answering questions directly.
“We’re here on a business trip,” post player Ekpe Udoh said.
“I can’t enjoy it that much. Like at the last game we played against Old Dominion. I wanted to just cry, jump, do something,” Carter said. “At the same time I know that we didn’t come here to just play in the Sweet 16. We came here to win games. We’ve just got to continue to stay focused.”
A preseason pick by the Big 12 coaches to finish 10th in its own league, Baylor (27-7) instead was the No. 3 seed in the South Regional and joined Kansas State—not No. 1 Kansas or Texas—in the round of 16.
It is the Bears’ second NCAA tournament in three years, and they advanced to the NIT championship game last season. But they are still trying to be noticed for their success on the court now instead of the tragic and scandalous summer nearly seven years ago when one player was killed by a teammate.
In the aftermath of Patrick Dennehy’s murder, former coach Dave Bliss was caught in a tangle of lies and financial misdeeds that led to crippling penalties against the program.
“This program has taken a lot of strides since all that happened,” senior Josh Lomers said. “We’ve just got to put that in the past. I hope other people are willing to, too.”
Coach Scott Drew took over a program facing reduced scholarships and recruiting visits. There was even an unprecedented half-season just four years ago when the Bears weren’t allowed to play non-conference games, only after the NCAA had considered shutting down the program for a whole season.
The Bears beat Sam Houston State and Old Dominion in New Orleans, where Carter and leading scorer LaceDarius Dunn got to play in their home state. It also led Drew to compare Baylor to the Super Bowl champion Saints.
“They’ve had some tough years and I know their team was really excited when they were able to give their fans a lot to cheer for,” Drew said. “And that’s how we feel.”
Baylor is now at Reliant Stadium, the massive NFL facility located about 3 1/2 hours from their Waco campus.
“People think we should be scared for some reason, because we don’t play in gyms this size, because we don’t have McDonald’s All-Americans on our team,” Samhan said. “I don’t even think I’m saying anything crazy. … We are America’s team. We’re just a blue-collar team that works hard.”
Samhan figures to have his work cut out against a zone defense that even Udoh finds hard to describe.
“Energetic, long, crazy, lackadaisical at times,” the 6-foot-10 Udoh said.
That’s OK with Samhan, who is just as happy with Mickey McConnell, Ben Allen and Matthew Dellavedova taking shots from outside. The Gaels are one of the nation’s top 3-point shooting teams, and McConnell has hit eight of 15 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament.
“We fooled Baylor and most of the country. They think we win because we have this great inside post player,” Samhan said. “We have such great shooters that I’m excited for them to zone us. It’s going to be a quiet night for me.”
Don’t count on that.