Inspired Booker delivers for Midshipmen

March 06, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

They trailed by five points at halftime. They trailed by 10 early in the second half. But every time the Navy Midshipmen needed a basket or a rebound, there was Hassan Booker, playing with four fouls, delivering as inspired a performance as you'll ever see in a college basketball game.

Navy is going to the NCAA tournament, but don't ask how. Last night's 76-75 victory over Bucknell was a frenetic scramble, an uphill struggle until the final moments. Fittingly, it was Booker who gave the Mids their first lead of the second half, converting a three-point play with 1: 05 left. It had to be Booker, fierce and heroic to the end.

Booker drew his fourth foul with 11: 29 left, but returned with 9: 39 left, and left the game only once after that. He finished with 25 points on 11-for-16 shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds and was named MVP of the Patriot League tournament. Of course, good, solid Navy citizen that he is, he said, "I credit my teammates," before joking, "They had to miss for me to grab the rebounds."

Well, it was a team effort. It always is at Navy. Shooting guard Michael Heary scored 21 points, 5-foot-8 point guard Brian Walker added 15. Matt Sladky didn't hit a shot, but made five free throws in the final minute. Michael Green didn't hit a shot, but made a huge defensive stop at the end.

As coach Don DeVoe asked, "In a ballgame you win by one to earn the right to go to the NCAA tournament, what play isn't big? Seth Schuknecht hit only one shot, but it was a three-pointer that pulled Navy within one with 7: 13 left. Walker hit only one three-pointer, but it, too, was a biggie, tying the score with 3: 14 left.

Of course, without Booker, none of it would have been possible. "You don't measure the guy in anything except hustle, grit, guts -- and tonight, I'll add smarts," DeVoe said. "I told him to go back in with a lot of time remaining and said, 'Hassan, you can't foul out.' We had to have him in this game.' "

It was a hold-your-breath, don't-look type of gamble, but it worked. The Navy players, students and cheerleaders formed a massive pile on the court after the final buzzer sounded -- Navy led by eight with 27 seconds left before Bucknell's final desperate run. But this was DeVoe's victory, too.

In the past four years, he has led Navy to two NCAA appearances and three 20-win seasons. Not a bad turnaround for a coach who resigned at Tennessee in 1989, lasted only one season at Florida, then spent two years as a volunteer assistant at Indiana and Duke before resurfacing with Navy in '92.

"It's totally rewarding," DeVoe said. "I often say to myself, 'What more can we do?' The truth is, we can do so much more. We're bringing in better athletes and better students. But this team is winning at its level right now. That's all you can ask."

DeVoe, 56, was forced out at Tennessee because school officials believed he wasn't charismatic enough to fill a new 25,000-seat arena. Terrific logic. The Vols reached the NCAAs in DeVoe's final season. They haven't returned since.

In fact, Tennessee has made the NIT only twice under Wade Houston and Kevin O'Neill since DeVoe's departure, bottoming out at 5-22 in '93-94, the school's worst record in 32 years.

Let's see, '93-94 -- that was the season DeVoe first took Navy to the NCAAs. And let's see, Navy is now only the fourth team in NCAA history to improve its conference record five consecutive seasons.

Tennessee, on the other hand, is working on a streak of five straight losing seasons. And DeVoe, it must be noted, is doing this with future U.S. naval officers, not high school All-Americans.

Whatever, the Mids enter the NCAA tournament with nine straight victories. Of course, it all would have gone to waste if they had not won last night, especially after leading, 16-5. An NCAA bid is the only standard of excellence in college basketball.

DeVoe said Navy's '93-94 team "came from nowhere" to earn its bid, rebounding from a 5-10 start and an 8-19 record the previous season. But if '94 was a Cinderella story, '97 is a Lilliputian delight. Booker leads the team in rebounding; Walker, of all people, is second. The tallest starter is 6-7 Mike Palumbo.

Navy had a four-game losing streak in December, but after beating Harvard on Jan. 2, DeVoe told his players they could win the rest of their games. Evidently, he wasn't kidding. Since DeVoe moved Palumbo ahead of Josh Williams in the starting lineup, Navy has won 14 of 16.

Of course, one of those losses was at Bucknell, so no one expected last night to be easy. The Bison stormed back from its early 11-point deficit, and for the next 30 minutes, controlled the game. Center Tom Welch was unstoppable early in the second half; guard J. R. Holden was unstoppable later.

But with Navy leading by three points in the final minute, DeVoe took Walker off Holden in favor of defensive standout Michael Green -- "eight more inches of height," DeVoe joked. "Maybe nine or 10." Holden missed a runner on the baseline, then fouled out in frustration, a pivotal swing. "It wasn't anything I really did," Green said. "He just missed a shot."

And Hassan Booker just played a routine game. And Don DeVoe just felt the tiniest vindication. And Navy just advanced to a little sporting event, something called the NCAA tournament, on this magical, maddening, tense and rewarding night.

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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