Mids on uphill road in NCAA berth bid

Patriot men's final stacked in favor of host Lafayette today

March 10, 2000|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

EASTON, Pa. -- History does not augur well for Navy.

The host team has won the Patriot League men's basketball title in every season except the first since the final game shifted to the home court of the higher seed in 1993. Today, the Midshipmen strive to break that stranglehold at Lafayette College's Allan P. Kirby Center.

Although both teams finished 11-1 during the regular season -- each spliting a game in their individual series -- and survived their early round tournament games, Lafayette received the home advantage by virtue of finishing with a better Rating Percentage Index than Navy.

Given a choice, Lafayette elected to play the final on its court rather than take a quarterfinal bye, which went to Navy.

"No question they have a distinct advantage playing at home," said Navy coach Don DeVoe. "The nature of this game makes it that way. Anything less than our `A' game probably won't be enough at Lafayette."

So, the Midshipmen will have to enter the NCAA tournament the hard way -- in somewhat unfamiliar gymnasium before a hostile audience.

"To win, you're going to have to go in and take the crowd out of the game from the beginning," said Navy's all-league forward, Chris Williams. "In both games we played, the crowd was instrumental in having the momentum swing. You could tell by the scores."

The Leopards (23-6) won the first meeting here, 80-74, but Navy retaliated in a big way at Alumni Hall, blitzing ahead 17-4 en route to a resounding 94-66 victory.

"We're sure going to try to get ahead quickly, and maybe they'll lose their confidence in their game plan," said Navy guard John Williams, whose primary function will be to track league Player of the Year Brian Ehlers. "But if we do that, we're still going to have to stay intense."

How the Midshipmen defend against Ehlers and Lafayette's burly center, Stefan Ciosici, will be crucial. They had 18 and 17 points, respectively, in the last meeting, but the majority came after Navy had run away.

"He's one of the toughest guys in the league to chase," John Williams said of the 6-foot-4 Ehlers. "I look forward to running around with him. The most important thing is to keep the ball out of his hands. They set a lot of screens for him and once he gets the ball, he's very dangerous."

Ciosici will be the responsibility of Navy senior center Sitapha Savane, who said his rival "is really big. He had a knee injury which slowed him down a little big, but he's still the biggest challenge I have in the league. I just take it as motivation."

Incentive is overflowing for Savane, who was beaten out for Player of the Year honor by Ehlers. "I play a whole lot better when I'm mad," Savane said. "I tend to be a lot more aggressive, and I like playing on a hostile court."

No lineup changes are in store from DeVoe, who will start Robert Reeder with Chris Williams at forward, Savane in the middle and John Williams and point guard Reggie Skipworth. Then Navy will agitate with its reserve waves.

"This is a game in which you'll probably see more players at the scorer's table checking in than at any other this year," DeVoe said. "We've been comfortable playing a two-team rotation."

With the intensity level high, Lafayette is also expected to go about 10 deep in an effort to keep pace with Navy's backup lineup.

Navy (23-5) enters the 4: 30 p.m. showdown (ESPN) with a 13-game winning streak and 22 victories in its past 24 games. Its only defeat since before Christmas was at Lafayette. The Leopards have captured 13 of their past 14 starts, bowing only at Navy.

An easy semifinal triumph over Colgate in which they shot 52 percent from the field has helped ease the Midshipmen's misgivings about last March's tournament flop, but Navy is eager to play after a five-day lapse between games.

"Everybody has gotten edgy just practicing and playing against each other," said Savane, who believes Navy's easy win over Lafayette "won't have much of an impact. But we've gotten on something of a roll so I feel good about it."

Savane has been bothered by a strained groin that affects his lateral movement, but has been improving of late. With adrenalin flowing at a high level, he shouldn't be affected.

"This will be a 40-minute game," DeVoe said. "It wouldn't surprise me if it boiled down to the last two or three possessions. We want to have the lead going into the last five minutes because they have an advantage at the free-throw line. We don't want to watch them shooting free throws to sew it up."

Navy today

What: Patriot League tournament championship game

When: 4: 30 p.m.

Opponent: Lafayette

Site: Allan P. Kirby Center, Easton, Pa.

TV/Radio: ESPN/WNAV (1430 AM)

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