After frittering away an early 20-point lead, the Naval Academy used a suffocating defense, strong rebounding from junior forward James Norris and repeated trips to the foul line to trim Florida Atlantic, 83-66, at Alumni Hall last night before a crowd of 1,141.
Using the inside game of 6-foot-11 center Alex Kohnen and 6-foot-5 forward Wes Cooper, the Midshipmen (4-3) jumped out to a 33-13 lead in the first 13 minutes against the smaller Owls, playing only their second season of Division I ball.
"It looked like they didn't scout us, we had so much success getting the ball inside," said Norris. "At Drexel last week, they knew the plays before we ran them."
When Navy coach Don DeVoe went to his bench in the first half, Florida Atlantic kept pecking away and closed to 46-45 with 13:42 left.
It was still close at 52-47 when the foul line proved the Mids' best friend. In what must have seemed like an eternity to Owls coach Tim Loomis, Navy converted four straight free throws in a three-second span.
Kohnen began the bizarre sequence by missing his first free throw. But the Owls were called for a lane violation. He made the next two. Norris got jostled on the foul line and added two more free throws.
"That four-point play killed us," said Loomis. "But we've been getting killed [by officiating] on the road. When we lost to Bradley [76-65], we shot only three free throws all game. It's that simple."
It was just as lopsided last night, with Navy shooting 49 free throws to only 17 for the visitors.
In fact, the Mids scored only two field goals in the last 10 minutes -- one by point guard Brian Walker (14 points, 5 assists) and the last by promising freshman Michael Heary with 4:16 left. But Navy made 27 of 36 foul foul shots in the second half to keep comfortably ahead.
When Cooper picked up his fourth foul early in the second half, Norris stepped in and controlled the boards.
The 6-foot-7 forward, who sat out last year to improve his grades, pulled down eight rebounds.
Said DeVoe: "That was as well as I've seen Norris play defensively and rebound. He really extended himself tonight."
Norris, who came to the academy with a scorer's mentality, has accepted a complementary role.
"Cooper [15 points, 13 rebounds] and Kohnen are our low-post scorers," he said. "My primary role this year is to rebound and go after the ball."
DeVoe, who calls his 1994-1995 Mids "much superior" to last season's Patriot League champions and NCAA tournament team, has shown great faith in his bench.
When starting guard Randy Torgrimson struggled early, he did not hesitate calling on Heary, an all-stater from upstate New York, who once scored 62 points in a game for Fredonia High.
"When I came here, they told me I'd have an opportunity to play a lot," said Heary. "I know we've got a lot of depth, so I just want to take advantage of my playing time."
Heary contributed 14 points, making all eight of his free throws.