For the longest time, T.J. Hall had trouble making the jump into Alumni Hall.
He was consigned primarily to the auxiliary gymnasium at Halsey Field House, where the Naval Academy plebe/junior varsity basketball team spends most of its time.
During his first two seasons, the 6-foot-3 junior guard from Port Jefferson, N.Y., played in two varsity games and scored a grand total of two points.
There was little evidence to suggest that Hall would emerge as the fulcrum of the Navy team that plays host to Colgate today at 4:30 p.m. for the Patriot League championship.
Hall is now the top scorer and inspirational leader of the Midshipmen, who are shooting for their first NCAA tournament berth since David Robinson left the academy in 1987.
As Hall goes, so goes Navy. The team has won 11 of its past 13 games, and during that stretch he has averaged 18.9 points. In the two losses, he has scored four points.
What happened to make him such an overnight sensation?
"It sounds kind of silly, but it was just hard work," Hall said. "I played in a summer league and practiced a lot, and this is what happened."
Navy coach Don DeVoe calls Hall "a shooting star the entire season."
But he isn't enthralled with his practice habits.
"He's a gamer, much better in games than in practice," DeVoe said. "The one thing that sets him apart is that he's really been able to rise when the situation demands it."
"I guess that's true," Hall said. "I play better in games. But I wouldn't exactly say I stink in practice."
No matter. There is no doubt that the team gets a lift from Hall, whose attributes are aggressiveness, an ability to drive to the basket and constant activity.
In Navy's two Patriot League tournament games so far, Hall has 55 points -- shooting 16-for-32 from the field, 21-for-26 from the line -- 11 rebounds, seven assists and five steals.
He isn't exceptional in any phase of the game, but he is fundamentally sound in most of them. That personifies this Navy team, which relies on balance, hustle and, at times, emotion.
"T.J. has developed a real attitude," DeVoe said. "He's a triple threat who recognizes that someone has to score. He shoots bTC well and gets fouled a lot and sets the tone for other players."
Hall did not start this season on the varsity. He sat out two games after playing in two junior varsity scrimmages.
But once he finally entered Alumni Hall, there was no stopping him. He scored 19 points in each of his first three games with the varsity.
"My jump shot has improved, so I can score better," he said. "I can take the medium-range shot now and that helps my driving."
"I didn't consider him to be a shooter until this year," DeVoe said. "But his talent has changed. He is very accurate outside now, and he has more offensive moves."
Hall's brother, Francis, was a member of the Navy football team when Robinson was leading the basketball team into three straight NCAA tournaments. Hall's father, Thomas Jr., played football at Boston College.
Like his teammates, T.J. is disturbed that no Midshipmen made the first two Patriot League all-star teams. "Nobody at all," he said with a trace of bitterness. "I think that kind of irked everybody on our team a little bit. Army had two, and they finished last."
An economics major, Hall hasn't considered what he might do beyond his naval career. He's having too much fun right now.
"I think it's great that we're home, and I hope a lot of midshipmen show up," he said. "They can get pretty loud when they're here. Not that the other people aren't, but there's extra excitement."
NOTES: Today has been declared "Navy Basketball Day" in Annapolis by mayor Al Hopkins and streamers have been placed downtown. . . . Navy officials are asking any midshipmen within a 200-mile radius of the academy to return from spring break for this game and are also circulating the word around the Pentagon. Sales are picking up, but tickets are available. . . . Comparative statistics before and after freshman Brian Walker started at point guard: Record -- 5-9 to 11-3; team shooting percentage -- .431 to .493; team scoring average -- 70.6 to 80.6; team assists -- 14.1 to 17.2.
PATRIOT LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP
Colgate (17-11) at Navy (16-12)
Site: Alumni Hall, Annapolis
Time: 4:30 p.m.
Radio: WNAV (1430 AM)
Outlook: The top two defensive and three-point shooting teams in the league play a rubber game for an NCAA tournament bid. Navy won at Colgate, 68-67, on Jim Hamilton's three-pointer at the buzzer, and the Red Raiders won in Annapolis, 67-54. Colgate G Tucker Neale (26.7 ppg), fifth in the nation in scoring, had 53 points in the two games, but was only 10-for-30 in his team's tournament victories over Lehigh (87-80) and Lafayette (76-73). Navy ousted Army, 96-84, then came from 15 down in the first half to nudge Holy Cross in overtime, 93-91, thanks to gritty defense and tough rebounding (52-29 edge). They are the hottest teams in the league with matching six-game winning streaks. Colgate is 3-0 at Alumni Hall, and Navy has won four straight there. The Midshipmen have no real marquee players, but have averaged 89 points during the winning streak. G T. J. Hall (13.4 ppg) has been on a roll with 55 points in the two tournament games.