There was so much there for Navy when it walked on the floor to face Richmond in Halsey Field House tonight: the regular-season conference title, a top seeding in the tournament, a much-improved stance in terms of an NCAA tournament bid, a bit of revenge for an earlier loss and 6,315 people who rocked the old arena.
"Before the game," Navy Coach Paul Evans said, "I told them: 'If you need a psych-up speech, you don't have a pulse.' "
No need to worry. The Midshipmen are shipshape. After a 2-2 tie, they led the rest of the way and defeated Richmond, 85-72.
The victory gives 19th-ranked Navy the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the league tournament that begins Saturday.
The Midshipmen (24-4, 13-1) will face James Madison at 7:30 p.m. in Halsey Field House. Richmond (22-5, 12-2), which will be the second seed, will play host to William and Mary. The semifinals and finals will be Monday and Tuesday nights at George Mason.
Navy's Vernon Butler led all scorers with 27 points, 15 in the second half. Kylor Whitaker had 24 points, 20 in the first half on nine-for-10 shooting, and David Robinson contributed 19 points, 11 rebounds and six blocked shots. Richmond was led by Peter Woolfolk's 24 points and John Newman's 22.
"I don't know if it was in the cards for us to win tonight," Richmond Coach Dick Tarrant said. "But we want badly to play them in a rubber game."
Tonight's victory makes it extremely tough to exclude Navy from the NCAA tournament even if it stumbles in the CAA tournament. Or at least Evans thinks so.
"We put 'NCAA' up on the chalk board before the game, and we thought this would cinch it," Evans said.
For all intents and purposes, Whitaker was Navy's offense in the first half. He hit his first seven shots -- most from the 16- to 19-foot range -- and made a couple of nice passes when the opportunities opened inside. The Midshipmen shot 70 percent from the floor in the first half, but only led, 44-39, at intermission.
"I was nine of 10 and we're only up by five, but if we're up five with only my shooting, we're going to be all right," Whitaker said. "They ran a box-and-one with the one on Whitaker in the second half in Richmond, and all year I've just taken what the defense has given. But we worked on the offense a little this week and I was able to get off the picks a little better.
"It's no secret: With defenses sagging on David and Vernon inside, it's a matter of opening the defense by sticking the outside shots."
After he had softened Richmond's defense from long range, Whitaker and point guard Doug Wojcik started going inside to Butler and Robinson.
Navy outscored Richmond by 15-5 in the first 4:33 of the second half, which left the Midshipmen up, 59-44. Of those 14 points, Butler had 10 and Robinson three.
They again led by 15, at 63-48, with 13:17 to go, when Robinson scored off an offensive rebound.
Robinson drew his fourth foul with 8:59 to go and Navy ahead, 65-54. Evans decided to leave him in.
"I was tempted to take him out," Evans said. "But I was afraid the same thing would happen that happened down there, which was them going crazy against us man-to-man. I was hoping panic wouldn't set in, so I wanted to have David in there. We just told him to let them score if they were going to score."
Robinson pulled back, but not a lot, and he didn't pick up another foul despite challenging a couple shooters.
"With the big guy in there," Tarrant said, "we do things, like traveling and charging, that we don't normally do."
Navy led by 15 four times, all in the 10 minutes after intermission.
Whitaker made two free throws after Tarrant was called for a technical -- "My first in five years," he said -- to make it 70-56 with 7:24 left.
But Newman scored twice, Woolfolk scored over Butler in the lane and Rodney Rice, who played at St. John's High School in the District, scored two of his 14 points, to cut the Navy lead to 70-64. And after Butler made one free throw, Newman tipped in a shot, to make it 71-66 with 4:43 to go.
But the Midshipmen kept their poise. Robinson scored on a layup off a feed from Whitaker, Wojick made a jumper, and Butler scored after a steal by Robinson. The run put Navy ahead, 77-66, with 2:53 to go and ended the Spiders' hopes.
"We played real smart," Evans said. "When there was an opportunity inside they went inside, and they took the open jumpers when they were there."
"We always put two guys on David Robinson," Tarrant said. "And that leaves a lot of gaps."
The Spiders were without senior forward John Davis, who fractured his elbow Feb. 13, and they are now essentially a five-man team. Woolfolk's 34 minutes were the fewest of the starters, and the bench contributed two points and no rebounds.
Richmond's press, which gave Navy fits in the Spiders' 67-61 victory earlier this season, was just "a token press" tonight, according to Tarrant.
"Davis makes a big difference in their defense," Evans said.
It was the last regular-season home game for Butler and Whitaker, who, along with Wheaton's Tony Wells, were honored before the game. Butler is the all-time leading scorer in Navy history and the crowd -- the largest to see a regular-season game in Halsey -- had an impact on him.
"It was the biggest, loudest crowd we've had here," Butler said. "It was the first time here that I've had tears come to my eyes." Notre Dame 70, De Paul 59
In South Bend, Ind., Donald Royal went 16 for 16 from the foul line as the No. 12 Fighting Irish (20-5) beat the Blue Demons (15-11). Royal scored a game-high 26 points and set a Notre Dame record for consecutive free throws.