Navy won the battle. And that's exactly what it was.
The 18th-ranked Midshipmen defeated George Mason, 72-61, last night at the Patriot Center in the championship game of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, thereby earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
It will be the second straight trip to the NCAA tournament for Navy (27-4), which has won 13 straight games and 20 of its last 21.
David Robinson led all scorers with 26 points, had 12 rebounds and blocked six shots. Teammate Vernon Butler had 24 points and Kylor Whitaker had 13.
"We're just about where we want to be at this time," said Robinson. "We got a good team effort, and that's what we're going to need to advance in the NCAAs."
Kenny Sanders led George Mason (19-11) with 17 points and seven rebounds. Ricky Wilson had 14 points, Rob Rose and Earl Moore 10 each. The Patriots had won seven in a row before last night, with their last loss occurring Feb. 6, also at the hands of Navy.
Mason Coach Joe Harrington acknowledged that his team was outmanned by the taller Midshipmen. "I don't think we could have beaten them tonight if we had the Army, Air Force and Marines," he said.
The first five minutes of the second half last night were extremely sloppy.
Robinson dunked on an alley-oop from Whitaker for a 40-35 lead with 18:20 to go. More than 2 1/2 minutes passed before anyone scored again, and in that time Mason's Tracy Battle collected his third and fourth fouls. He fouled out with 14:32 to go.
Robinson hit a 10-footer from the left baseline and then the hostilities that had been simmering came to a boil as Butler and Mike Dufrene tangled under the basket and both benches emptied. No fouls were assessed.
Navy built a 10-point lead by outscoring George Mason by 9-4 over the next four minutes.
Rob Nieberlein had played only 12 minutes this season prior to last night, but he was part of Mason's surplus of muscle, and fouls, which was its only hope of neutralizing the more talented Robinson and Butler. Neiberlein committed his fourth foul with 8:54 to go, and Robinson made both free throws for a 57-47 lead.
But the Patriots had one more run left in them. Wilson made a free throw, Sanders made a three-point play, and Neiberlein banked one home to cut the Navy lead to 57-53 with 6:09 to go.
In their semifinal victory over UNC-Wilmington, the Midshipmen had lost their poise a bit and let the lead slip to one point. But this time, they responded with a spurt of their own, outscoring George Mason, 7-0, over the next 2:13.
Robinson's basket, on a feed from Whitaker, gave Navy a 64-53 lead with 3:47 left. George Mason would get no closer than seven points the rest of the way.
Robinson said the Midshipmen expected a physical game. They got it, as Mason was whistled for a tournament-record 37 fouls.
"They were really banging me inside, but the referees called a close game, which helped us," said Robinson, the CAA player of the year.
The game might not have been as close for as long if Navy had done a better job at the foul line. The Midshipmen made only 24 of 41 free throws against the Patriots -- less than 60 percent -- and converted just 63 of 114 from the line in the tournament.
"That's one thing we really have to work on," said Robinson, who made 10 of 18 free throws last night. "I should know, I'm the main culprit."
Controversy developed last night even before the game had begun, when the teams disagreed on which team would shoot at which basket in the first half.
A couple of weeks ago, George Mason had asked to have its regular bench throughout the tournament, since it was playing on its home court. The league athletic directors agreed to the request, even though normal procedure would have the higher-seeded team taking the "home" bench, which is to the right of the scorer's table.
Then, last night, George Mason came out and started warming up on the basket to the left of the scorer's table where the GMU students sit. Navy came out and said it wanted to start the game at that basket, so as not to have to shoot free throws into the mass of hands in the second half.
Mason's Harrington resisted, using the argument that the lower-seeded team usually gets its choice. Evans protested, saying Mason shouldn't have both.
Commissioner Tom Yeager ruled that, "in the interests of fairness," Navy would get its choice. There were more than a few words exchanged between the two teams, who have a history of not getting along terribly well.
Any doubt that this was going to be a physical game was erased in the first minute when Robinson was called for pushing while trying to establish offensive position, and Dufrene was called the next time down the court.
Robinson wasted no time going to the hole. He scored Navy's first two baskets, following his own miss on the second one.
Moore hit a 17-footer to tie the game at 4-4, but George Mason was hit with a technical foul because Patriots fans threw streamers on the court for the third time. Whitaker hit the technical, and Robinson followed with another basket.
The Midshipmen outscored the Patriots by 10-2 over three minutes for a 24-10 lead with 10:11 to go.
But George Mason came back. With Navy ahead, 27-17, Rose scored on a fast break to begin an eight-point Patriots run. Mason managed to cut the Navy lead to one twice before halftime. But Navy freshman Nate Bailey hit a jumper with five seconds left to give the Midshipmen a 38-35 halftime margin.