With a little luck, Mids' berth is a lock

March 06, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

The fans stormed the court, shrieking, "We want Duke!" The coach joked, "There's some fear down there in Chapel Hill." The tournament MVP brought his five lucky combination locks to the interview room, and set them down gently in front of him.

The point guard? He'll tell you he's too slow. The power forward? He's all of 6 feet 3. The backup center? He's the son of a Senegalese politician and United Nations diplomat, and he speaks four languages -- five, if you count trash talking.

Say hello to the Navy men's basketball team, champions of the Patriot League for the third time in five years, an almost-certain No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament and the happiest, wackiest first-round punching bag you'll ever see.

All Navy did yesterday was blow a 21-point lead, see three of its top six players foul out and throw the ball away with the score tied and 1: 57 left. You expected perfection? Nah, just a 93-85 victory over Lafayette that left coach Don DeVoe saying, "I don't know how many more years of this I can take."

Actually, DeVoe knew better than anyone just how fortunate the Midshipmen were, not just to escape, but to be host of the game at all. The Alumni Hall crowd of 4,153 was a Patriot League championship game record. It was loud. It was raucous. It was the product of a coin flip, for crying out loud.

Navy and Lafayette finished with 10-2 conference records, split their two regular-season games and suffered losses at Bucknell. That took care of every possible tie-breaker, leaving home-court destiny to heads (Navy) or tails (Lafayette).

Heads it was.

The Midshipmen had lost a similar flip in 1996, and Colgate won the tournament. This year there was a twist -- the winner could pick between a first-round bye as the No. 1 seed, or home-court advantage for the championship game as the No. 2.

Guess which DeVoe chose?

True, Navy lost to Lafayette at home by one point on Feb. 11, but this time an NCAA bid was at stake, and the Leopards had no seniors. It showed in the first half -- Navy took its 21-point lead, and still led by 17 with 1: 31 left. But then Sitapha Savane got hit with a bench technical, and by halftime the margin was 10.

Savane, a 6-7 sophomore, had an otherwise brilliant game, scoring 15 points off the bench and helping contain 6-11 Stefan Ciosici, the Patriot League Player of the Year.

His technical, however, helped revive the Leopards. Sophomore Brian Ehlers scored 19 of his tournament-record 31 points in the second half. Navy missed 15 free throws, and in the final 8: 46, first-team all-league forward Hassan Booker, Sevane and senior forward Matt Sladky fouled out.

Enter junior guard Skip Victor, the defensive locksmith who carries, you guessed it, a chain of five combination locks to the court, touches them every timeout, even holds them when he's not playing.

The two times this season he forgot to unpack the chain from his travel bag, Navy lost.

"Before the game we pass them around," said junior forward Seth Schuknecht, who started the tradition with one lock earlier this season. "Everyone dials in the combination, puts in their man's number."

"It gets you in that mind-set to play defense," Booker said. "When the locks come out, it's a sign for us to come out and play hard."

Victor did that all game, but he emerged from a timeout with 4: 08 left talking to himself, saying, "No tomorrow, no tomorrow." Then, after Sladky fouled out with 2: 48 left, senior point guard Michael Heary pulled Victor aside for a chat.

"Skip, you've got to step up, got to do something for us," Heary said.

"I know," Victor replied. "I know."

He smiled later, recalling the moment.

"Then I came down and made that turnover," he said.

Ah, yes, the errant pass that enabled Lafayette to regain possession with the score tied 80-80 and 1: 34 left.

"I was really upset," Victor recalled. "I needed something after I made that turnover, some kind of spark to get me out of the doghouse of Coach DeVoe."

"You were getting there, son," DeVoe said, laughing.

So, what did Victor do? He knocked away a pass on Lafayette's next possession, then converted a layup on the other end to regain the lead for Navy. Heary, the shooting guard who converted to the point in December, hit a jumper to extend the lead to 84-80, and soon after the celebration began.

The Mids rushed the court, but Victor broke away to chase down Ehlers, congratulating the Lafayette sophomore just before he disappeared under the arena.

The crowd sang the Navy alma mater. Victor returned to accept the trophy as tournament MVP. DeVoe took the microphone and thanked the band -- you know, just like Bob Knight always does.

To think, the coach felt the need to address the Mids at lunch the day before, urging their attendance. Heary and Booker had lobbied student and administration leaders with the same goal.

The result?

The Academy decreed that for one day, intramurals would not be mandatory, so that the Mids could attend the 4 p.m. start. No, the place wasn't packed. But clearly, the crowd made a difference.

Afterward, DeVoe joked about Ben Carnevale, the coach who left North Carolina for Navy in 1946, back when such career moves were considered perfectly logical in college basketball.

"Have things changed a little bit since the '40s?" DeVoe asked, laughing. "It doesn't matter who you play in the tournament. Maybe we will be a 16th seed. Maybe someone will recognize us as being stronger. It doesn't matter. We're a part of it."

In fact, they're a lock.

Pub Date: 3/06/98

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