WORCESTER, Mass. -- Naval Academy women's basketball coach Joe Sanchez knows just what to expect when his Midshipmen take the court at Hart Center tonight for the Patriot League final against the defending champion Holy Cross Crusaders.
Said Sanchez: "The arena will be rocking with 3,500 people dressed in purple shirts against some 50 wearing Navy blue. The archbishop might even show up to cheer for Holy Cross. But I love being the underdog. Wouldn't it be great to upset them in that kind of atmosphere?"
Sanchez was in this same situation a year ago, when his then senior-dominated team played the Crusaders even for 39 minutes.
"We were down by three with 36 seconds left, missed a three and wound up losing by six [75-69]," he recalled.
The Crusaders, led by two-time Patriot League Player of the Year Amy O'Brien and dynamic junior guard Anna Kinne, lost only one starter from last year.
Navy, on the other hand, lost three key players in Becky Dowling, Joanne Groth and freshman point guard Felicia Harris, who was expelled from the academy.
The current team is built around the strong inside play of senior center Laurie Coffey (13.0 ppg, 8.1 rebounds) and junior forward Erica Hayes (16.5, 7.7) and an ever-changing supporting cast of role players. Sanchez employed 10 different starting lineups in February.
But the Midshipmen are not lacking in confidence. They split two close games with Holy Cross this season, each team winning on its home court.
"I think they're beatable," said Coffey, knowing her remark had an excellent chance of appearing on the Crusaders' chalkboard.
"We've beaten them this year. We know all their offensive and defensive tendencies and match up well against them."
Coffey will have the formidable task of defending O'Brien, a smooth-shooting, versatile offensive weapon who led the league in both scoring (22.4) and rebounding (8.4).
"I've just got to try my best denying her the ball," said Coffey, knowing O'Brien still managed to average 29 points against Navy this season.
But while the slender O'Brien gets all the media attention, both Sanchez and Gibbons consider the stocky, 5-6 Kinne the Crusaders' catalyst.
Said Gibbons, "In last year's championship game with Navy, she was 0-for-11 from the field, but I would have still named her the tourney MVP. She had 11 assists, five rebounds and five steals, doing all the things that often get overlooked."
Added Sanchez: "Kinne is definitely their go-to player. O'Brien gets a lot of points off Kinne's penetration. We have to control her. You can't beat Holy Cross with one defense. You have to keep 'em off balance."
Gibbons uses a three-guard offense, with senior Lara Marcsisin and playmaker Veronica Jutras joining Kinne as a solid ball-handling trio. But they are even more effective on the defensive end, limiting conference rivals to 58 points a game.
"I expect they'll pressure us 94 feet," said Sanchez. "We have to be able to handle it. I also think they'll pack it in against Coffey and Hayes.
"That's why our perimeter shooters -- sophomores Mandy Stephan and Jennifer Bombinski -- have to step up like they did againt Army [in the semifinals]."
Besides the chance of upsetting Holy Cross, the Midshipmen have an added incentive. No women's service academy team in any sport has ever participated in an NCAA Division I tournament.
"Now that would be huge," said Coffey, determined to extend her basketball career at least one more game.
Pub Date: 3/03/99