Navy almost was whistled right out of the ECAC South basketball tournament tonight, but wound up in the final, instead. George Mason wishes the whistle had blown long before it did.
David Robinson, Navy's ECAC South player of the year, was charged with three fouls in the first three minutes and the Midshipmen looked dead in the water against host William and Mary in their semifinal meeting. But Navy shot a tournament-record 70.5 percent from the field to defeat the Indians, 89-83, and advance to the final against Richmond at 4 p.m. Saturday.
George Mason would like to have called off its game, a 77-64 loss to Richmond at William and Mary Hall that was even worse than the score indicated.
Mason (18-11) took the idea that it is a second-half team a little too seriously, and it proved the Patriots' undoing. They trailed by seven at the half and watched as Richmond scored the first 10 points of the second period.
Richmond's Spiders are 20-9, compared with the Midshipmen's 24-5 record. Navy defeated Richmond twice this season, 67-63 on the road and 80-55 in Annapolis. The third game will be a rematch of last year's final, which the Spiders won, 74-55.
Navy was without Robinson, its 6-foot-11 sophomore center who has averaged 23.9 points, for all but three minutes of the first half. He received his three straight fouls by 16:33 to leave scoreless and spend the rest of the period on the bench.
"In the first three minutes, I thought I either had a heart attack or had been stricken with polio," said Navy Coach Paul Evans.
But Robinson returned in the second half to score 14 points, including the Midshipmen's first eight of the period, and did not get another foul until 35 seconds remained. The rest of the team displayed some out-of-character finesse, getting 25 points from Kylor Whitaker and 20 from Vernon Butler.
"We showed a lot of people something about Navy," said Whitaker, who hit eight of 13 shots from the floor and nine of 11 free throws. "We hung in there; we didn't just fall apart. We kept our patience and got good shots, even without David."
The Indians played Navy one of its closest games, keeping it a two-pointer for much of the second half and shooting 53 percent from the field, the best of any team against the Midshipmen all year. All-conference forward Keith Cieplicki scored a game-high 31 points on 13-for-21 shooting, most of it from the top of the key.
But the Midshipmen had an eight-point scoring run midway through the second half to open a 63-59 lead. It would dwindle some here and there, but the team never relinquished it.
The brief run, one of the few in the game, didn't start until 8:42 remained. The Midshipmen got a layup from Butler, two foul shots from Whitaker, a jumper from guard Doug Wojcik and a tip-in from Carl Liebert for a 63-57 margin.
The Indians crept back to 65-63 on jumpers from Cieplicki and Kevin Richardson, who also was sharp for the Indians, finishing with 23 points on 11-for-18 shooting.
Navy opened it up again, Whitaker hitting two jumpers and Robinson scoring from the lane for a 71-65 margin. But Cieplicki hit two straight from the top of the key, separated by a basket by Robinson, and the Indians trailed by just 73-71 with 3:51 remaining.
Then Robinson had a rare miss, and Cieplicki came down with the ball. But his 25-foot shot hit the back of the rim and bounced away, and Liebert hit an eight-foot jumper in the lane to make it 75-71. Robinson then blocked Richardson's jumper on the next possesion, and Navy had the ball with two minutes remaining.
The Midshipmen extended the lead to 82-73 from the foul line over the next minute, Whitaker hitting one, and Liebert, Butler and Cliff Rees two each. The rest of the game was one long trip to the free throw line, and the closest William and Mary could come was five. The Midshipmen shot 87 percent from the free throw line for the night, making 27 of 31 attempts.
The victory marked Navy's second straight 24-win season, which should win it one of the 64 NCAA tournament berths even if it loses in the final. But Evans wasn't so sure. The Midshipmen were 24-8 last year but weren't invited anywhere after the loss to Richmond.
George Mason trailed at the half, 34-27, and let things get even farther out of hand in the opening minutes of the second half. The Patriots went scoreless for the first four minutes, while Richmond scored 10 straight points for a 44-27 lead.