The Naval Academy basketball team's two largest priorities are to earn a postseason bid and beat academy arch-rival Army. And not necessarily in that order.
The Midshipmen accomplished one of those goals today by defeating Army, 48-47. But not without a few anxious minutes.
Navy's David Robinson tried to beat the Cadets by himself; he went 13 for 14 and had 32 points, 14 rebounds and five blocked shots. At one point in the first half he scored 20 straight Navy points, going nine for nine from the floor and two for two from the foul line.
And with 1:48 left in the game, Robinson sank one of two free throws to provide what proved to be the winning point. Army's Kevin Houston missed an off-balance shot in the final seconds before Navy claimed a dramatic victory in their annual skirmish before a delirious crowd of more than 6,100 at Halsey Fieldhouse.
Army (13-12), a heavy underdog to the taller and more physical Midshipmen (21-4), relied strictly on outside shooting and nearly pulled off a major coup. The Cadets trailed by five before long jumpers by Houston (nine points) and Randy Cozzens (17) cut the deficit to 47-46 with 3:40 to play.
"We had to go to a slowdown attack," said Army Coach Les Wothke. "We couldn't run up and down (the court) with Navy."
Both teams missed shots before Army fouled the 6-foot-11 Robinson. The sophomore was finishing a dream afternoon until he began missing free throws (seven in the second half, including three front ends of one-and-ones).
"Had he made those foul shots, it would have saved us some sweat and frustration," said Navy Coach Paul Evans, who has to be a favorite among Academy higher-ups with five victories in five years over Army. "Robinson had a good first half. But he was going against 6-5 kids and he should have."
Robinson was perfect on his first shot from the line to give Navy a two-point lead. He missed the second but teammate Vernon Butler (10 points, seven rebounds) kept the ball alive, Robinson ran it down and the hosts retained possession. But seconds later, Kylor Whitaker was called for an offensive foul and Army took over.
Cadet Drew O'Connell missed a jumper and Ron Steptoe managed to get one of Army's few offensive rebounds. He was fouled hard by Robinson on his attempted layup and left the game. But he appeared unhurt.
Evans thought that since Steptoe, a former St. John's all-Met, was the worst free throw shooter (58 percent) on the floor, he might have turned in a nice acting job.
"I'd bet my life on it," Evans said. "They have smart kids. He could have been faking."
Dennis Schlitt, who had made his only free throw this season, replaced Steptoe and made one of two shots to make it 48-47 with 1:08 left.
Army immediately fouled Doug Wojcik and the Navy guard missed his one-and-one opportunity. The Cadets then played for the winning shot.
"We wanted to keep the ball for the last shot," Wothke said. "We wanted some penetration and hopefully get the ball up. We didn't want to go too deep because of Robinson."
And Robinson wasn't going to allow anything cheap. "I was challenging anything in the paint," he said.
Navy played good man-to-man defense, Cliff Rees first cutting off the Cadets' best shooter, Cozzens, and forcing the pass back toward midcourt. With time running out, Houston got as close as he could and, with seven seconds left, half-jackknifed up an off-balance 18-footer that wasn't close.
The ball was batted around and Butler got the ball near the end line. He was tied up by Steptoe as they went out of bounds with one second left, but it was awarded to Navy on the alternate possession on jump balls. Navy tossed the ball in to Robinson, who held it high above his head as the buzzer sounded.
Trailing, 28-26, at the half, Navy fell behind, 34-27, in the second half. But the Midshipmen scored nine straight points, seven by Robinson, to take a 36-34 lead with 13 minutes left.