PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Omar Samhan was an unstoppable Gael force.
Samhan, a 6-11, 260-pound center, played the game of his career yesterday on basketball's biggest stage, finishing with 32 points - making 13 of 16 shots - and seven rebounds to lead 10th-seeded Saint Mary's past Villanova 75-68 and on to the Sweet 16 round and the South Regional in Houston.
"Omar's a beast," Saint Mary's Clint Steindl said.
Mickey McConnell stopped and fired an arcing 25-footer that banked high off the glass to give Saint Mary's a 68-65 lead with 1:15 left. Samhan used a two-handed block to turn back Reggie Redding and McConnell made both ends of a 1-and-1 to make it 70-65.
The sellout crowd was well behind the Gaels (28-5). Saint Mary's, from Moraga, Calif., north of Oakland, will play Baylor Thursday. Samhan stopped when he saw a familiar face near the locker room and shouted, "Did it really happen? We won? For real?"
Villanova, which needed overtime to survive against No. 15 Robert Morris on Thursday, started the season 20-1 but faded to 25-8.
Scottie Reynolds, who put Villanova in the Final Four last season with a last-second basket against Pittsburgh, missed 9 of 11 shots yesterday and scored eight points. That came after he missed 13 of 15 shots against Robert Morris. Tears streamed and Reynolds' lips trembled as he tried to put the loss in perspective.
"There's no shame in losing," Reynolds said. "We came up against a great opponent in a Saint Mary's team who just had our number. We're going to hold our heads up high."
Samhan frustrated Villanova until late in the second half. The Wildcats rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit with their transition game to tie the score on Antonio Peña's layup. Peña's following free throw tied it at 51, and Corey Fisher's basket the next time down gave Villanova a 53-51 lead.
Neither team gave much the rest of the way. Samhan made three layups in two minutes, but Reynolds nailed a three for a 59-59 tie with 5:39 to play.
It was tied again at 65 when Fisher made two free throws with 1:35 to play. That's when McConnell (15 points) drilled his three that was felt from America to Australia - the Gaels boast four Aussies on their roster. Seven more free throws more than offset a three by Corey Stokes (15 points), and the Gaels had advanced past the first round in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1959.