Rallying Navy lands NCAA berth Trailing most of game, Mids overtake Bucknell for Patriot title, 76-75

March 06, 1997|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

With its season on the line, the smaller Navy basketball team rose to the challenge last night, rallying from 10 points down in the second half to nip Bucknell, 76-75, in a thrilling Patriot League final that earned the Midshipmen an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

"We didn't want to make it this dramatic," said tournament MVP Hassan Booker.

The 6-foot-3 junior forward scored 25 points and grabbed 13 rebounds while battling taller defenders. His three-point play with 1: 04 left gave Navy its first lead of the second half, 69-66.

In clinching their ninth straight victory, the Midshipmen (20-8) relied on the foul shooting of reserve forward Matt Sladky, who converted five of six free throws in the closing minutes.

Junior swingman Michael Heary (21 points) made Navy's final two points on a pair of free throws for a 76-69 spread with 20 seconds left.

That proved just enough for Navy to survive a pair of three-pointers by Willie Callahan and Gordon Mboya in the final seconds.

When the final buzzer sounded at Alumni Hall, it set off a wild celebration at midcourt by the Midshipmen, who will be going to the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years. In their last appearance in 1994, they lost an opening-round game to Missouri, 76-53.

But Navy coach Don DeVoe refused to sell his team short.

"I think there were a lot of nervous people if they saw us play tonight on TV," he said. "We'll be going up against a lot of inches and talent and press clippings, but I don't care who we play. We're ready for the big guys."

Not many among the crowd of 3,052 gave Navy much hope of playing in the postseason after falling behind 43-33 early in the second half.

Bucknell (18-11) was enjoying success working the ball down low to its big men -- Tom Welch and Dan Bowen -- against the smaller Mids.

Welch, in particular, proved unstoppable in the post. The 6-foot-8 senior center had 20 points in the first 30 minutes, but did not score after that.

"They were beating us the old-fashioned way, taking the ball inside," said DeVoe. "They took advantage of their size and took us to the woodshed the first part of the second half."

Covering the taller Bison caused Booker to get in early foul trouble. He picked up his fourth personal with 11: 29 remaining. But DeVoe couldn't afford to keep his over-achieving forward on the bench for long.

After a brief two-minute rest, Booker was rushed back into the game and led Navy's winning rally.

"Coach DeVoe just told me to be careful and not pick up another foul," said Booker. "I just tried to stay in front of my man, and I was fortunate because Bucknell stopped trying to get the ball inside."

Playing without the vocal support of the brigade of Midshipmen, who were on spring break, Navy kept making runs at the Bison. A three-pointer by Seth Schuknecht cut the Mids' deficit to 54-53, but Bowen responded with a layup off a lob pass.

Booker came back with a layup, but Bucknell answered with baskets by J.R. Holden (15 points) and Martin Gilliard to take a 60-55 lead with 5: 40 left.

A three-pointer by captain Brian Walker finally pulled Navy into a tie at 62. It would be tied twice more, the last time at 66, before Booker's three-point play off a miss by Heary triggered the final winning spurt.

Navy jumped out to a 16-5 lead early, harassing Bucknell into turnovers. Booker had a spinning jumper and a three-point play, and Heary added a three-point shot.

But that served as a wake-up call for the Bison. Mboya and Gilliard combined for six straight points to trim the margin to 16-11 and draw a loud response from the large contingent of students who made the trip from Lewisburg, Pa.

Booker ended the streak with a layup. Navy then went scoreless for three minutes while Bucknell put together a 12-0 run for a 23-18 cushion. Welch accounted for the last seven points for a 23-18 lead.

The see-saw pattern continued. A rebounding basket by Navy reserve Skip Victor and a three-point play by Walker produced a 23-23 tie. Gilliard then hit his third straight shot, a three-pointer, to reclaim the lead, 26-23.

Navy was getting only one shot a possession against the taller Bison. The Mids' frustration grew when Terrell Hickmon was charged with a flagrant foul against Mboya, who hit both free throws to give Bucknell its biggest lead at 30-25.

The Bison retained the margin at halftime, 34-29.

"In the end, we just had trouble getting into our offense," said Bucknell coach Pat Flannery, who branded Navy's aggressive style as "smash-mouth basketball."

"But tonight, I'm not going to stand here and give Navy anything but credit, because they really battled us out there. Walker [15 points, five rebounds] is the heart and soul of their team, and Booker is the strength."

And Booker also had the final word.

"I don't care if we have to play Vermont or North Carolina in the first round," he said. "We're going to the tournament. We're carrying on where our football team [Aloha Bowl winners] left off."

NCAA bids

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