Paul Evans finally was relaxed, if only for a moment. He sipped a scotch, crossed his legs and talked softly about the vagaries of college basketball. Around him, a reception for Navy's basketball team slowly was breaking up, just a few hangers-on still singing the fight song.
Evans' players, who hours earlier had produced the most stunning upset of the NCAA tournament's first round, were scattered around Dayton. Three were swimming in the hotel pool. A couple had gone back to watch the evening doubleheader. Some were at the movies. Kylor Whitaker was calling his girlfriend to tell her the team would be on television Sunday.
"We're playing Maryland, more pressure for everybody," Evans, ever the melancholy coach, said with a wry smile, a reference to Sunday's second-round game here (WDVM-TV-9, 2:15 p.m.). "If we win, everyone will say it's because Lefty (Driesell) screwed up or they stunk. If they win, everyone will say, 'See, Navy is still second rate.'
"That's the one problem with this tournament. Only one team wins the last game it plays. That's not going to be us. I just don't want these kids, who have had a season that couldn't possibly have gone better than this one, to go away from this with a bad memory."
Regardless of Sunday's outcome, no one connected with Navy is going to look back on this season with anything but fond memories. The Midshipmen are 26-5. They won the ECAC South regular-season and tournament titles. They made this tournament for the first time in 25 years and shocked the country with a 78-55 demolition of Louisiana State in the first round of the Southeast Regional Friday.
But now, Navy has the chance of a lifetime. With the entire nation taking an interest, the Midshipmen play Maryland (24-11), a team they've faced only once since Evans' first game at the academy five years ago because Maryland, 25 miles away from the Naval Academy, won't play Navy home and home.
"The kids know this is the fairest chance they're going to get," Evans said. "Neutral floor, neutral refs. If we were to beat them, it would be a true Cinderella story."
That Maryland is here to play Navy is a minor miracle of its own. The Terrapins appeared beaten in the opening round against Miami of Ohio, overcoming a three-point deficit in the last 20 seconds of overtime to win. Now, they are expected to reach the round of 16. They know it will not be easy.
"We know this is for bragging rights," said Adrian Branch, one of Friday's heroes. "We know just how much they would like to knock us off."
Several Navy players watched Maryland play Miami and came away impressed, but not awed. "Lenny Bias is an unbelievable player," said point guard Doug Wojcik, who had 18 points against LSU. "But he's human and they're human. We might have been in awe of them once, but not anymore. It's too important now for us to be scared of anybody at this point."
Whitaker, the 6-foot-6 small forward who is so thin he looks like he could crawl under a closed door, also watched the Terrapins. "We've both got a lot to prove," he said. "They want to prove they're still king of the block and we want to prove different. We proved something against LSU, now we have to take the next step."
Although 6-11 sophomore center David Robinson undoubtedly is the major talent on this team, the player who personifies the Midshipmen is Vernon Butler.
By his own description, the 6-7, 235-pound junior is "big and slow." As a high school senior in Beltsville, Butler was politely approached by Driesell. "I knew I couldn't play for them then," Butler said today. "They just had more talent than I did. I would have gone down there and ridden the bench. I didn't pursue it at all."
Back then, four springs ago, Navy could not have played with Maryland, either. When Evans made his debut against Maryland in November 1981, he was bringing transition basketball to a school that considered the 20th pass of a possession a good time to start thinking about running a play.
Navy lost that opener to Maryland, 86-64, and was 9-16 Evans' first season. But since then, the improvement has been steady: from 12-14 to 18-11 to 24-8 to this year.
"What this team has done is take each step just like they figured they could take it," Evans said. "They knew they played well today. They also knew that LSU was lousy. So, they're excited and happy but they aren't going crazy. I think they'll come back ready for Maryland. I know Maryland will be ready for us."
As gratifying as Friday's victory was, the Midshipmen knew that LSU wasn't ready to play. They knew Coach Dale Brown never convinced himself or his players that Navy should be taken seriously. "They just looked dead out there," Butler said. "I couldn't understand it."
Nonetheless, when the game ended and everyone in the Dayton Arena stood for the playing of the Navy alma mater, the players couldn't help but become a little emotional. "It was the kind of thing you'll remember when you're older," Whitaker said.
"Someday I'll tell my kids how I played in the NCAA tournament and we beat LSU and they played the alma mater and the whole place stopped. But memories are for later. Right now, we really want to beat Maryland."
To do so, the Midshipmen will have to do the same things Evans preached before the LSU game: go to the boards successfully; keep the Terrapins from running, and, perhaps most crucial, get some perimeter shooting because Maryland will pack its defense around Robinson and Butler. Because of that, someone like Wojcik must come up with the game of his life as the 6-1 sophomore point guard did Friday.
Now, the Midshipmen are finally proving to outsiders what they have believed since October. "We've worked so hard to get here," Whitaker said. "Friday was great, but beating Maryland would just be picture perfect."
Friday night, Evans was trying to get his hands on a film of Maryland's loss to Dayton here in January. "We showed them a film of LSU losing to Syracuse to show how they could be beaten," Evans said. "I'd really like to get that Dayton film."
Evans doesn't need a film to know what must be done to beat Maryland. He has seen the Terrapins often enough to know their capabilities. And, he doesn't need any prodding to know just how much a victory would mean to his program.
"It would mean about $200,000, right?" he said, referring to the NCAA payoff for reaching the next round.
It would mean far more than that.