Sprink Shoots Navy Into First Place

"The consistency he's playing with and his desire to win for Navy," Coach Billy Lange said of Greg Sprink, "has cemented his legacy." (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Christian Swezey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Navy senior Greg Sprink left the basketball game against American twice last night. The first time came midway through the first half; he was on the bench for only a few seconds and, seven seconds after he came back, he made a three-pointer.

The second time came with 14 seconds to play. Then, he received a standing ovation, because Navy had secured its 83-68 victory before 3,191 at Alumni Hall and he had finished with 34 points and seven assists.

With the victory, Navy took first place in the Patriot League standings with one game remaining. The Midshipmen (16-12, 9-4) are tied with American (17-11, 9-4) but own the tiebreaker because they have beaten the Eagles twice.

Sprink has been a big reason why: In the two games, he scored 70 points.

"This year we haven't shown we can really guard Sprink," American Coach Jeff Jones said. "Last year in two games, I thought we did a terrific job. After the game we'd look and see he had 18 points, but he had to work hard and put up a lot of shots. We don't have that one guy to match up with him this year."

Winning the regular season is important in the Patriot League. The highest-seeded team plays home games in the tournament, including the final. And the home team has won the conference tournament -- and thus advanced to the NCAA tournament -- in 12 of 15 seasons.

It was clear early on last night that it was an important game. The crowd included around 1,400 members of the Brigade of Midshipmen. They marched to the game in a de facto formation; once they got inside, however, they shed the inhibitions and created an uncommon din.

Sprink entered leading the conference in scoring average -- 20.9 points -- and, in particular, his performances against the Eagles had proven decisive. He scored 36 points in a victory over American earlier this season and had 27 in a win at Alumni Hall last season.

In the seven games in which he played that were won by the Eagles, he averaged less than 12 points.

American's game plan was to defend him close on three-point shots and try to draw a charge when he drove to the basket. On consecutive drives late in the first half, however, no one stepped to draw a charge, and Sprink scored on layups.

Junior forward Jordan Nichols was inserted into the game and was ready to draw a charge the next two times Sprink drove to the basket; Sprink pulled up both times.

However, Nichols had two fouls by that point, and a crucial moment occurred 23 seconds before halftime. With the shot clock winding down, Nichols drove to the basket and was called for a charge, his third foul.

He picked up his fourth foul with 14 minutes 30 seconds remaining to play and sat out the rest of the game.

Eventually, American's plan worked. Sprink was called for two charging fouls in the second half, but the outcome was decided by the time he picked up his fourth foul.

"Right now, the consistency he's playing with and his desire to win for Navy, in my opinion, has cemented his legacy," Coach Billy Lange said. "He's a big-time player."

The Midshipmen took a 51-43 lead following two free throws by junior Clif Colbert with 14:30 left. The Eagles closed to 51-45 after a layup by junior point guard Derrick Mercer, then went scoreless on their next four possessions.

Not only did Navy not take advantage, it lost ground. The Midshipmen went scoreless on 11 possessions and, by the time they scored again, two free throws by Sprink tied the score at 53 with 8:14 to play.

The Eagles took their last lead at 58-55 following a three-pointer by junior Garrison Carr with 7:14 to play. The Midshipmen answered with an 18-7 run and took a 76-65 lead following two free throws by Sprink with 56 seconds left.

Carr finished with 20 points and junior Travis Lay added 14 points and 10 rebounds for American. Junior Kaleo Kina had 17 points and Colbert finished with six points, five rebounds and three steals. All but one of the rebounds came in the second half.

In the end, Navy seemingly struggled without Sprink. As he left the court to a standing ovation -- even some of the Eagles' fans applauded -- Navy's string of 17 consecutive free throws ended with a miss by sophomore Chris Harris.

By then, it didn't matter.

"It does feel real good" to be in first place, Sprink said. "But the first thing I was thinking about was Colgate" in the regular season finale on Saturday.

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