Navy found a way to win a championship game it seemed destined to lose on its home court yesterday, using clutch baskets by Skip Victor and Michael Heary to withstand a furious Lafayette rally, 93-85, before a record Patriot League tournament crowd of 4,153.
The Midshipmen (19-10), who will be making their second straight trip to the NCAA tournament, led by as many as 21 points in the first half. But the Leopards, with sophomore forward Brian Ehlers scoring a tournament-record 31 points, kept chipping away and forged an 80-80 tie with 1: 57 remaining.
It was at that point that Victor, a junior who has been Navy's most consistent performer during the second half of the season, figured in two critical plays.
First, Victor tried to get the ball in the low post to Josh Williams, hoping Navy's junior center would score or draw a fifth foul on Lafayette's star center, Stefan Ciosici.
But Victor's wide pass bounced off Williams' hands and sailed out of bounds.
"I knew I had to find a way to get myself out of the doghouse," Victor said.
He did just that after a Lafayette timeout.
"I expected they'd try to get the ball to Ehlers," said Victor, chosen the tournament MVP on the strength of his 18 points, seven assists and four steals. "He'd been carrying their offense, so I just tried cutting off the passing lane."
Victor deflected a pass from freshman point guard Tim Bieg into the hands of Navy freshman Chris Williams, who alertly threw the ball downcourt to Victor for a breakaway layup.
There was now only 83 seconds left in the 2 1/2 -hour marathon that resulted from 60 fouls being called.
After a rare second-half miss by Ehlers, lightly played senior forward Josh Height, forced into action after Navy forwards Hassan Booker, Sitapha Savane and Matt Sladky had all fouled out, soared for the rebound.
After running 21 seconds off the clock, Heary found a seam in the Lafayette defense and banked home a short jumper.
"I remember the last game we played Lafayette here a couple of weeks ago," said Heary. "I missed the same kind of shot at the buzzer and they beat us by a point.
"I was the only senior left on the court today, and I had to prove to myself and the coaches I could still score," added Heary, who ended a long scoring slump with 26 points, including 15 of 19 from the foul line.
But the game was still far from over. After Victor hit a free throw, Ehlers converted a pair of free throws to close to 85-82 with 32 seconds left.
But Heary, Victor and senior Terrell Hickmon made six straight free throws to clinch the victory and set off a wild, confetti-throwing celebration at Alumni Hall.
"I don't know how many more games like this I can stand," said an emotionally spent Navy coach, Don DeVoe. "I took several teams from Virginia Tech and Tennessee to the NCAA, but I've never had a team repeat, and that makes this one special."
The title game was played in an electrifying atmosphere, unlike Navy's first two tourney games that were ignored by the Brigade of Midshipmen because of confusion over the dress code.
DeVoe made an impassioned plea to the brigade during lunch break Wednesday, and the midshipmen answered by turning out in force, with an estimated 1,000 students in attendance.
The partisan crowd helped Navy, playing near-perfect basketball, jump out to a 41-20 advantage with 3: 57 left in the first half.
But Ehlers began scoring on slashing drives and Ciosici (20 points), the Patriot League's Player of the Year, began using his big body to good advantage in the paint.
"We started playing not to lose rather than trying to win," said Heary.
With starters Booker and Sladky rendered ineffective by foul problems, DeVoe turned to his underclassmen, led by reserve center Savane and freshman forward Chris Williams.
Both responded to hold the Leopards off as long as possible. Savane, who made the all-tourney team, contributed 15 points and six rebounds, and pressured Ciosici into missing a pair of layups in crunch time.
Chris Williams had seven points and four rebounds, but also committed six turnovers.
But, in the end, it was the two veterans, Heary and Victor, who kept their team from suffering a painful defeat.
When someone jokingly asked DeVoe how he might match up against North Carolina in the NCAA opener, the coach didn't even flinch.
"Heck, I don't care who we play as long as we're a part of it," he said, relaxing for the first time.
Patriot men's tourney
Navy 79, Army 52
Bucknell 60, H. Cross 56
Colgate 84, Lehigh 83
Navy 80, Bucknell 61
Lafayette 83, Colgate 77
Navy 93, Lafayette 85
Pub Date: 3/06/98