The Midshipmen of the Naval Academy had to be feeling pretty good at halftime, leading by four points and knowing they couldn't shoot any worse than the 38 percent they managed in the first 20 minutes.
But the Midshipmen did something even more unpardonable in the second half: they shot just 30 percent from the free throw line, lost their lead and then their first-round Big Apple NIT game, 66-58, to St. John's at the Civic Center.
In the second game, West Virginia got 23 points from guard Dale Blaney and held Auburn's Chuck Person to eight points in a 75-58 upset. The Mountaineers meet St. John's in Sunday's quarterfinal game.
Against St. John's, 19th-ranked Navy shot 39 percent from the field and 50 percent from the foul line. And as a disappointed Coach Paul Evans said afterward, "You don't win games against teams like this by shooting 50 percent from the foul line."
After taking a 53-51 lead with 9:11 left to play, Navy didn't score a point for the next 7:13. It was difficult enough for the Midshipmen to get the ball inside to 7-foot David Robinson, what with everybody in a white uniform sagging around him.
But on three occasions when Robinson did get the ball, he was fouled and missed six free throw chances. "We were stuck so long at 53 that I wanted to go out there and try one," Evans said.
Meanwhile, Ron Rowan scored 11 straight points for St. John's (1-0) and moved the Redmen into a 60-53 lead.
Navy finally scored when Kylor Whitaker hit a 16-foot jumper with 1:58 left to bring his team within 60-55, but the Redmen of the Big East held on.
Robinson finished with 27 points and 18 rebounds, but only eight of those points came after intermission, and he missed seven of eight free throws in the second half.
Robinson dominated Walter Berry and the Redmen with 19 points and 11 rebounds in the first half in what St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca called "a benefit performance" by his defense.
But in the second half, Carnesecca took the offensive-minded Berry off Robinson and sent two marginally talented bruisers -- 6-9 Terry Bross and 6-10 freshman Marco Baldi -- into the game to "put the body on Robinson," as Berry said.
The strategy worked for St. John's in two ways. Bross and Baldi totaled no points and one rebound, but pounded on Robinson for eight fouls.
"They were just in there to beat David up and they did a pretty good job," Evans said.
"Robinson wore down, I could tell," Berry said. "Then we collapsed on him more and more and made him tire out even faster."
That allowed Berry to forget about defense and concentrate on his forte: scoring.
Berry barely got inside at all the first half against a tough 2-3 Navy zone defense. St. John's scored only one inside basket by design in the first 20 minutes.
But Berry, free of his defensive responsibilities, got inside for a basket to bring St. John's within 43-39, then 43-41. Berry, who scored a team-high 20 points, also worked free for an offensive rebound that tied the game at 47.
"Guarding (Robinson) had tired me out," Berry admitted. "Once we switched off and put Bross and Baldi on him, it allowed me to do the things I do best."
St. John's, which made the NCAA Final Four with a 31-4 record last year, looked totally disoriented at times during the first half in its first game without Chris Mullin and Bill Wennington. Carnesecca was happy with the victory but was quick to add, "We don't have any delusions of grandeur. We're not set yet."
The Redmen, however, did pull themselves together in the second half, largely because Mark Jackson (seven assists, 12 points) worked hard to get Rowan (19 points) some open shots.
Robinson got no such support. Vernon Butler, the senior forward, is a 57 percent career shooter, but tonight made only five of 12 shots.
Navy, eliminated from the NIT, will return to Annapolis disappointed over losing an eight-point lead in the first half (33-25 with less than two minutes left in the period).
The St. John's players left singing the praises of Navy. "They could play with the best teams in the Big East," Jackson said.
"That guy's gonna make a million," Carnesecca said, forgetting about Robinson's five-year Navy obligation after basketball. "It's going to be tough for him in the submarine. That guy's a jumbo jet."
Robinson may not have felt so big immediately after the game. He had made only nine of 19 field goal attempts and nine of 17 throws, which was especially baffling, he said, after his shooting touch felt so good in pregame warmups. "After a couple of missed free throws, I started thinking about it," Robinson said. "I don't know what it was."