Automatic bid at stake as Bucknell visits Navy Mids' depth figures to be factor in title game

March 05, 1997|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

Ask Bucknell basketball coach Pat Flannery what most impresses him about Navy, his opponent in the Patriot League final in Annapolis tonight, and he says without hesitation, "They come at you in waves; they just keep coming and coming. They're just so physical and apply constant pressure."

The depth of Don DeVoe's Midshipmen, more than anything else, is responsible for their conference-best 19-8 record and eight-game winning streak that has put them within a victory of an automatic NCAA bid.

Navy's last loss came at Bucknell, 69-55, Jan. 22, which the Midshipmen avenged at home, Feb. 15, in a front-running 78-67 victory.

The Mids have steamrollered the opposition in this torrid stretch, averaging 83 points and winning by an average of 25 points. Junior swingman Michael Heary (18.1) has been the scoring leader in seven of the eight games.

Junior forward Hassan Booker (12.0) is the only other player averaging double figures, but DeVoe has developed at least a half-dozen role players to keep constant pressure on the rival defense.

Perhaps his most critical decision came at the start of the new year after the Mids had slipped to 6-6 after consecutive losses to Dartmouth, St. Bonaventure, Stanford and Rice.

DeVoe benched 6-foot-11 sophomore center Josh Williams in favor of lightly played sophomore forward Mike Palumbo.

"I don't think Williams was getting the job done," said DeVoe. "For one reason or another, we just weren't communicating, or he wasn't picking up on what we were trying to do. He was fouling excessively and wasn't scoring with the consistency we wanted.

"His inability to impress us allowed Mike Palumbo that window of opportunity that he took advantage of. He had impressed all the coaches with his hustle in practice, and we decided to give him a shot."

Palumbo started against Harvard. Navy won, 66-63, and he has kept the job while the team has gone 13-2 the rest of the season.

"From that game against Harvard, he gained confidence," said DeVoe. "He's an energizer. He's like a big [5-7 point guard] Brian Walker out there. He's usually the first guy on the floor. He's really been active on the boards, and I've been impressed with the defense."

In Sunday's 96-57 semifinal blowout of Lafayette, Palumbo limited 6-11 All-Patriot League center Stefan Ciosica to three points.

But Palumbo also has contributed with offensive bursts. He scored eight points in an 18-0 run by the Mids early in the first half that gave them a 25-7 cushion against Bucknell they never relinquished.

DeVoe also has received solid play from reserves Mike Sladky (7.6 ppg), a junior, and Terrell Hickmon (7.1), a sophomore.

"Sladky has the ability to shoot the ball well outside," the coach said. "He's a coach's son, and he knows how to play three different positions -- shooting guard, and the small and power forward spots."

DeVoe pulled another rabbit out of his hat Sunday against Lafayette. Navy was nursing a slim 34-28 lead when he inserted Skip Victor, a sophomore guard who had played a total of 60 minutes all season.

It paid immediate dividends. A steal by Victor led to a breakaway basket by Palumbo barely beating the halftime buzzer. Victor went on to score seven points and grab four rebounds in 12 minutes.

"It was a calculated gamble," DeVoe said of Victor's sudden emergence. "He's a very athletic kid, and we needed that at that BTC moment. He could get some quality minutes against Bucknell."

In addition to their eight-game winning streak, the Mids have won eight straight at Alumni Hall since bowing to Dartmouth, 77-63, Dec. 21.

"We're not looking at the homecourt or crowd advantage," said DeVoe, aware the corps of Midshipmen is on spring break. "Our players know this is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to earn a championship ring and a trip to the NCAA tourney.

"The first time we played Bucknell, we tried to get the ball inside and they blocked 10 of our shots. To beat them, we have to utilize our speed, drive the ball, create steals and go to the foul line."

Defensively, the Mids must key on stopping junior guard J.R. Holden. In the two games against Navy, Holden made 17 of 29 shots, including eight of 14 three-pointers in scoring 54 points.

"He's very good shooting off the dribble," said Walker, who gives away at least six inches. "I just have to try and deny him the ball."

Patriot League tournament

First round

Saturday

Bucknell 84, Lehigh 54

Colgate 104, Army 79

Lafayette 70, Holy Cross 65

Semifinals

Sunday

Navy 96, Lafayette 57

Bucknell 71, Colgate 58

Championship

Today

Bucknell at Navy, 9: 30 p.m.

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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