MORAGA, Calif. (AP) -Omar Samhan and Diamon Simpson make up the nation's top rebounding duo for tiny Saint Mary's College, and to think they both nearly ended up elsewhere.
Good thing for coach Randy Bennett and the Gaels they didn't.
The successful post tandem is a big reason Saint Mary's (18-1, 5-0 West Coast Conference) is riding a school-record 15-game winning streak - also the longest in Division I - after a 65-42 win at San Diego on Thursday night.
Yet Simpson almost chose Fresno State, in large part because he didn't like the modest arena in Moraga where the Gaels play. The sparkling new Save Mart Center, with its 15,000-plus seating capacity, was much more appealing at the time.
``I was in love with the gym,'' Simpson admitted recently, grinning. ``It's just a huge gym.''
sn't eligible. So Samhan, like Simpson a little-known Bay Area product, also wound up at Saint Mary's - retaking the SAT, sitting out his first season as a redshirt and then working to earn a scholarship.
``They're more complete players than they were in the past,'' said Bennett, the school's eighth-year coach. ``And that's why we're off to the start we're off to.''
It's the best start in school history, too.
``I wish we could be Top 25,'' Simpson said. ``I feel we've earned it.''
The Gaels could very well get that ranking this coming week.
Samhan and Simpson also are flirting with becoming the first teammates to finish the season averaging a double-double since 1992-93 - both are among the top 25 rebounders in the country. Simpson broke Tom Meschery's school rebounding record of 916 earlier this month and also owns the career mark for blocked shots.
Simpson is averaging 12.8 points and 10.9 rebounds and Samhan 13.9 points and 9.8 boards.
``I didn't even realize the rebounding numbers we've been putting up,'' Samhan said.
n 1959.
The initial big test comes when the Gaels face eight-time defending league champion Gonzaga for the first of two regular-season meetings on Thursday in Spokane. The 23rd-ranked Zags have dominated the WCC for the last decade and Saint Mary's is on a mission to finally dethrone the perennial favorite.
Each night, Samhan and Simpson aim to outdo each other - a friendly rivalry on the court they believe only fuels them to push harder on every possession.
``We're both extremely competitive. That plays a role,'' the soft-spoken Simpson said. ``You don't have to say much. In a game when we're screaming at each other about rebounding, that's when we're competing.''
Added Samhan, ``I just want more rebounds than he has.''
The 6-foot-7, 230-pound Simpson committed to Fresno State before the Bulldogs' coach was fired and a scholarship then became available at Saint Mary's. His mother, Onie, eventually stepped in and kept her son close to home for college in one of San Francisco's East Bay suburbs. Apparently it was the right move.
``It all fell into place,'' Simpson said.
Neither of these two were highly recruited prospects out of high school.
``I don't think people thought we would pan out or could understand how hard we work,'' said Simpson, who has spent many a night with Samhan bugging campus safety officers to let them into the gym for some extra shooting.
ther had him when she was 16, while Samhan has always lived with his mom, Marianne. His father lives overseas and hasn't had a steady role in his life.
Each player wears size-15 shoes, so the 6-10, 265-pound Samhan often works out a trade to get Simpson's sneakers after he's worn them once or twice. They acknowledge being messy at home, needing a weekly visit from the house cleaner.
On the court, they are tough to handle.
``They present big-time matchup problems,'' said first-year coach San Francisco coach Rex Walters, who joined the Dons after Samhan had left. ``Samhan is just an absolute load. It's great to see a kid who was under-recruited and he's a high-major player. We would have loved to have him. He's the kind of kid you want to have in your program. Saint Mary's is blessed and fortunate to have him.''
Simpson has emerged as one of the best players ever to go through the Saint Mary's program, in addition to ranking first in rebounds and blocked shots, he's second in steals and seventh in points scored.
He has also attracted around 1,000 kids from his hometown of Hayward to McKeon Pavilion for several ``Diamon Simpson Night'' games to cheer on his successes.
al team in the Beijing Olympics last summer. Saint Mary's students chant ``Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!'' for each basket an Australian player scores.
Not that there are any hard feelings from the two big men.
``That's like in life: The dirty jobs normally don't get talked about,'' Samhan said. ``It's not glamorous but it's very effective. ... When my whole deal went bad (at USF), I told a lot of people: 'I want to play with Diamon. He's good.' People kind of laughed at the idea. Even my AAU coach was like, 'You and Diamon aren't really big enough to dominate.' But we both kind of believed in each other.''

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