Midshipmen aiming to be 3 times charmed

Lafayette is team to beat, but defending champions might have better draw

February 26, 1999|By ALAN GOLDSTEIN | ALAN GOLDSTEIN,SUN STAFF

WEST POINT, N.Y. -- There has been speculation that if the Navy men fail to defend their Patriot League tournament title, a bid to the National Invitation Tournament could be in the offing.

But the Midshipmen, who won 20 games in the regular season for the first time since All-American David Robinson led them to a 26-6 record 22 years ago, have higher ambitions. Coach Don DeVoe won't say it aloud, but his players definitely have a threepeat in mind when it comes to an automatic NCAA bid.

"We're not looking at the NIT," said team captain Skip Victor, the MVP in last year's conference tournament. "It would be real special to leave the Academy with three straight trips to the NCAA under my belt. We'd be setting a tradition for the players who follow us here. Great basketball schools like Duke and North Carolina all had to start somewhere."

Even though the Midshipmen lost twice to top-seeded Lafayette, which enjoys a first-round bye, they might have an easier trip to the final than the Leopards.

Navy (20-6, 9-3) begins tournament play tomorrow at 11 a.m. against Lehigh (5-21). The Mountain Hawks were 0-12 in the conference and lost to the Midshipmen by 30 and 33 points.

If Navy advances to the semifinals, it will play against the winner of Bucknell-Holy Cross, a game that defensive-minded Bucknell is expected to win.

Lafayette (20-7, 10-2) needs to win only one game to be host of the championship in Easton, Pa., on March 5, but that could be problematic since both of the Leopards' conference losses came against Colgate, which has responded positively to rookie coach Emmett Davis, a longtime DeVoe assistant.

If the Red Raiders and Midshipmen survive their first two tests, Navy would be host to the title game for the third straight year.

Although his team closed the regular season with four straight victories, DeVoe is not standing pat.

In an effort to bolster an often-erratic offense, he promoted aggressive sophomore power forward Robert Reeder to the starting lineup, shifting his top rebounder and No. 2 scorer, Sitapha Savane, to center and sending four-year project Josh Williams to the bench.

"Reeder gives us more versatility," DeVoe said. "Stats don't tell us what Josh has contributed to us winning 20 games. He's really given us a boost on the defensive end, but lately he's been playing some ugly basketball. We can't get him over the hump shooting the ball."

Defense and rebounding have been the keys to Navy's success. The Midshipmen lead the nation in rebounding margin (10.7) and have held rivals to 38 percent shooting. Their tenacious man-to-man defense is spearheaded by Victor, who averages 2.92 steals to rank ninth in the nation.

While the Navy men finished the regular season on a winning streak, women's coach Joe Sanchez is trying to shake his team out of a late-season swoon that resulted in losing five of its last eight games.

The Midshipmen's most recent loss came in the regular-season finale against Colgate, the same team that third-seeded Navy (15-10, 7-5) faces in the opening round today. The Red Raiders won a 63-61 squeaker mainly on the strength of converting eight three-pointers.

Like DeVoe, Sanchez has been concerned about his team's inconsistent offense, prompting him to consider benching senior point guard Vanessa Melofchik in favor of lightly played freshman Marisa Ball.

Sanchez has auditioned a number of playmakers but has found no one to duplicate the penetrating skills of Felicia Harris, who was dismissed from the Academy last spring.

Navy has faced full-court pressure most of the season, wasting time on the shot clock and taking the team out of its normal low-post game.

Minus Harris' ball-handling skills and with Navy's 33 percent conversion mark from three-point range, rivals have packed their defenses down low to frustrate the potent inside combo of junior Erica Hayes (16.3) and senior co-captain Laurie Coffey (12.9).

Said Sanchez: "We just haven't been able to put the ball in the basket. That's been our Achilles' heel. When we shoot close to 50 percent, we generally win comfortably, but the last three weeks, it's been a real struggle. Against Colgate, we missed four layups in the first two minutes."

At the top of their game, the Navy women proved capable of beating defending champion Holy Cross and boast at least one victory against every conference foe. But the recent two-point loss to Colgate was upsetting, especially to Coffey.

"We just haven't developed a killer instinct," said the 6-foot-1 center. "There have been too many games when we've come out flat in the second half. I've never lacked confidence, but I have to keep motivating our younger players.

"But we shouldn't need anyone's help to get us up for Colgate. Their coach [Ron Rohn] was riding me all game long. I've never had that happen to me before. He doesn't know what wrath he has brought upon himself."

Patriot League tournaments

Men

When: Tomorrow, Sunday and March 5

Where: First round and semifinals at Christl Arena, West Point, N.Y.; championship game at higher-seeded finalist.

TV: Championship game on ESPN

Radio: Navy games on WNAV (1430 AM)

Defending champion: Navy

Favorite: Lafayette won the league title with a 10-2 record.

Dark horse: Navy has a huge edge over conference rivals in rebounding.

MVP candidate: Lafayette guard Brian Ehlers led the conference in scoring (18.0) and finished third in rebounding (6.0).

Women

When: Today, tomorrow and Wednesday

Where: First round and semifinals at Christl Arena, West Point, N.Y.; championship game at higher-seeded finalist.

Radio: Navy games on WNAV (1430 AM)

Defending champion: Holy Cross

Favorite: Holy Cross maintained the nucleus of a championship team.

Dark horse: Navy split two games with the Crusaders this season.

MVP candidate: Holy Cross center Amy O'Brien led the league in scoring (22.5) and was second in rebounding (8.4).

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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