6-11 Cunningham fights tooth and nail to boost Navy inside

Center key to Mids' hopes to counter Holy Cross' size for Patriot title, NCAA bid

College Basketball

March 09, 2001|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

WORCESTER, Mass. - Of all the sights and sounds accrued during Navy's run toward tonight's Patriot League championship game, one clearly stands out.

It is the footage of 6-foot-11, 250-pound center Michael Cunningham stepping into a passing lane against Army, stealing the ball, then dribbling three-quarters of the length of the court to an uncontested dunk. That was a rare - even unique - occurrence with Cunningham's size 20 shoes outracing the field.

The play underscored the manner in which the senior from San Antonio has taken to tournament play after being a peripheral figure most of the season. While playing just 13 1/2 minutes per tourney game, Cunningham has averaged 7.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks while shooting 7-for-8 from the field. His game is at its apex.

And the upturn seems to be traceable to the last time the Midshipmen visited Holy Cross at the Hart Center, where they absorbed one of their two losses this season to the No. 1 seed and regular-season champion.

"I played a decent game against them up there," Cunningham said. "Then I got my teeth knocked loose. I was helping on defense and [teammate] Rob Reeder came down and caught me in the mouth with an elbow."

Said Navy coach Don DeVoe: "I don't think he did some of the things he's doing now before he got that tooth knocked loose. He seems to have picked it up."

The teeth are fine now with the help of a brace. Cunningham must be a mouthful for the Crusaders if second-seeded Navy is to pull the upset and make the NCAA tournament field for the first time in three years. Game time is 4:30 p.m. for the nationally televised showdown (ESPN).

If Cunningham can help neutralize the inside dominance of 7-foot, 270-pound Josh Sankes and 6-9, 245-pound Patrick Whearty and perhaps get them into foul trouble, the Midshipmen's chances will brighten considerably.

"Sankes is first-team all-league and a big challenge physically. That's something I'd like to take personally," Cunningham said. "If I can keep him 4 feet away from the basket and take the ball strong to him on offense, it would be good. The last time we were here, he was getting passes right underneath the basket and just laying them in."

"Mike has got to be a factor for us," DeVoe said. "He gives up little weight in there, but he has a little more mobility."

Cunningham, whose major is quantitative economics, carries a 3.71 grade-point average, the highest of the five members of the Academic All-District 2 University Division team. On the court, his major achievement has been to reach No. 5 on the academy's shot-blocking list.

He can look gawky and out of place at times - and be intimidating at others.

"Sometimes, Mike finds the game frustrating," DeVoe said. "He gets in foul trouble and it's tough for him to sit down. He doesn't like to come out early and he doesn't shoot free throws particularly well."

If Cunningham picks up too many early fouls, DeVoe will go to the ever improving sophomore, Francis Ebong, a much larger offensive threat and more capable when Navy wants to launch its swarming all-court press.

"[I] must use my quickness on them," said 6-8 Ebong. "I've got to play as big as I can and play to get fouls. It will make it a lot easier on us inside if we get a lot of pressure outside and are making our outside shots."

Still, Ebong will have several more opportunities. For Cunningham, this could be the last hurrah.

"It's exciting, a chance for us to redeem ourselves," Cunningham said. "To win this game was goal we set for ourselves, and I think we're capable of achieving it. The Holy Cross crowd was a lot more intimidating than Lafayette's was this last year. We'll do our best to block them out.

"But I kind of like playing with the crowd in your face. It gives you more inspiration. We might have been a little too comfortable going to Lafayette last year after we blew them out at home. That's not the case now."

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