Samhan reflects on last year's Saint Mary's run

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MORAGA, Calif. (AP) - Omar Samhan scored more than 700 baskets, grabbed over 1,000 rebounds, scored nearly 2,000 points and played on the winning side in nearly 100 college basketball games at Saint Mary's.

Yet for most college basketball fans, the memories of Samhan over those four years boil down to one magical weekend in Providence, R.I., last March, when Samhan helped the Gaels become one of the darlings of last year's NCAA tournament by beating Richmond and Villanova in the first two rounds.

Those 80 minutes of basketball and countless quips before, during and after news conferences turned the player from the tiny school in the bucolic Oakland hills into a household name for a brief moment.

"I had a legendary college career and really when you break it down it was a weekend of good basketball that people remember me for," Samhan said recently in a phone interview from Lithuania, where he is playing professional basketball.

"I played well for a weekend. I wouldn't have the job I have right now. I wouldn't be making as much money as I'm making right now if that didn't happen. A lot of things would have shook out differently."

As conferences tournaments start to heat up over the next week, followed by Selection Sunday and then the tournament, there are other star players from unheralded schools hoping to make a name for themselves the way Samhan did a year ago by scoring 61 points on the opening weekend and leading Saint Mary's to its first tournament wins in more than a half-century.

But Samhan knows how elusive that fame can be. Just a year earlier, he broke down after the Gaels were one of the last teams passed over for an at-large bid after a midseason injury to Patty Mills derailed a promising season.

He was afraid that playing at a school overshadowed in its conference by Gonzaga and in its region by Pac-10 powers California and Stanford would deprive him of the notoriety he felt he deserved.

He might have had to deal with the anonymity of the NIT again last year if not for his teammates. Samhan struggled through his lowest-scoring game of the season in the WCC final against Gonzaga when a loss would have left the Gaels' fate in the hands of the selection committee once again.

But behind career nights from Mickey McConnell and Ben Allen, the Gaels pulled off an 81-62 win and the automatic berth in the tournament, setting the stage for Samhan.

"We were so close to being irrelevant but we went just far enough to be very relevant," he said "It was perfect."

He opened the tournament with 29 points and 12 rebounds in an 80-71 victory over seventh-seeded Richmond. Then by the luck of scheduling, the Gaels got national exposure in the second round when their game against second-seeded Villanova was the only one in the early Saturday window - giving the entire country a chance to see those old-school post moves that made Samhan so successful throughout his career.

He made 13 of 16 shots and charmed the media with his big personality and humor as the Gaels advanced to the round of 16 with the 75-68 upset that was capped by a late-night police escort back to campus, where they were welcomed home by more fans than used to attend games before Samhan's arrival.

"That was an unreal experience," Samhan said. "There was a media onslaught. For some reason, they just picked our school and me to just kind of magnify across the nation. It was awesome. I was sitting there watching SportsCenter and the next thing I know, something that I said on Twitter is getting read on SportsCenter. That's crazy."

The magical ride ended with a loss to Baylor just a few days later but the memories still last. Samhan recalls being stopped by strangers wanting to take his picture in Washington and Detroit while visiting NBA teams before the draft.

Dallas owner Mark Cuban contacted him on Facebook after Samhan wasn't drafted and invited him to play for the Mavericks' summer league team in Las Vegas last July.

He signed a two-year contract to play pro ball in Europe for Lithuania power Zalgris Kaunas, where his playing time has been sporadic and he has had to deal with not even playing in some games for a team that won the championship in its country and is also competing in the prestigious Euro League.

He has played 26 games so far, averaging 4.3 points and about 11 minutes per contest - a far cry from his 21-point, 11-rebound average in his final year for the Gaels.

"That's the hardest thing for me to go into a game and the coach just wants me to play my little role," Samhan said. "He doesn't want me scoring a ton, he doesn't want me to try to take over the game. For so long at Saint Mary's that was my mindset. Now to have little to no pressure, it's just don't mess up basically. It's a different ballgame for sure."

Samhan will follow the Gaels from afar this March, hoping his former teammates can defend their WCC tournament title and make another NCAA run. He will come back to the Bay Area in May for a few weeks to catch up with family and watch his friends graduate.

Then he will be off on another adventure, trying to help the Egyptian national team qualify for the 2012 Olympics. Samhan's father, Hassan, grew up in Egypt and was back in his homeland a few weeks ago during the uprising that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign.

"He said it was crazy, just mayhem," Samhan said. "He lived there until he was 22 so he's seen some stuff but nothing like this. It was just wild. It was on all the TVs here. It looked like a movie almost. It didn't look like it was real."

Samhan has family in Egypt who he has seen often on visits to the United States. But he has never been to his father's homeland. With the change going on in Egypt and a potential NBA lockout putting summer leagues in the U.S. in peril, Samhan figured this was the perfect time to play for Egypt.

"It's a fun year for Egypt with everything that has gone on there politically so I thought it was a good time to do this," he said.

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
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