The shock waves already were beginning to reverberate around the Carrier Dome. The scoreboard told why: Navy was leading by 14 with 7:27 left in the game. The Midshipmen's dream, a victory over the ninth-ranked team before 21,713 of its fans in the NCAA tournament, was tantalizingly close.
Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim, his face a mask of disgust and disbelief, had called time. Navy assistant coach Pete Herrmann, thinking back 12 months, grabbed his boss, Paul Evans, by the arm.
"Now's the time to get after the kids," Herrmann said he told Evans. "Make sure they don't think this is over." Evans, also remembering last year's second-round NCAA loss to Maryland, nodded. But as he turned to deliver his sermon there was a problem.
"The kids," Evans said, "were all over each other. There was nothing for me to say. I knew then we weren't about to let this one get away."
They never so much as let it get close. Playing basketball about as well as it can be played in a 65-point second half, the Midshipmen prevailed, 97-85, and advanced to the NCAA round of 16.
The Midshipmen, 29-4 and winners of 15 straight, will travel to the Meadowlands in New Jersey Friday (7:15 p.m.) to face tournament Cinderella Cleveland State, a 75-69 winner over St. Joseph's today.
To earn that spot, Navy got superb performances from almost everyone. As always, the most extraordinary numbers belonged to junior center David Robinson. He was almost unstoppable with 35 points, including a school-record 21 for 27 from the free throw line. He also had 11 rebounds.
Defensively, he held Syracuse center Rony Seikaly to two-for-eight shooting and four points before fouling him out. Robinson blocked seven shots and altered perhaps two dozen others.
"He's as good a big man as there is in the country," Boeheim said. "He took away our inside offense and we couldn't stop him at the other end. He just killed us."
Robinson had ample aid from teammate Vernon Butler. Slower and less graceful than Robinson but always effective, Butler had 23 points and nine rebounds, and had some key baskets early when it looked as if Syracuse might blow away the Midshipmen.
There were others: Doug Wojcik, the baby-faced point guard, handled Dwayne (Pearl) Washington's incessant pressure, running the offense for eight points and five assists. Freshman Nathan Bailey came off the bench in the first half to hit three baskets, and sophomore Cliff Rees, starting the second half, had 14 points, including 10 for 10 from the foul line when Syracuse tried to catch up by fouling.
"David and Vernon were great," said Evans, "but the key to the game might have been Wojcik. He handled their press, ran the club and got the ball where it had to go all day. If you look at him and at Pearl there is absolutely no comparison between the two of them as players. But Doug got the job done."
Washington was the only Syracuse player who refused to roll over in the second half. During an eight-minute stretch he scored all but one of the Orangemen's points, single-handedly keeping his team from being completely destroyed. He finished with 28 points, eight assists and five rebounds.
But that wasn't enough. On a day when Orangemen forward Rafael Addison (11 points) scored his first field goal with 15:35 left in the first half and his second with 2:31 left in the game, Navy's consistency wore down Syracuse (26-6).
"I'm a little bit shocked," Washington admitted. "We knew Navy had a good team but we didn't expect them to come in here and do this. The bottom line is, we had to stop David Robinson. He had 35 points. We had to stop Vernon Butler. He had 23 points. That says it all. They whipped us."
It didn't start out that way. With the Midshipmen colder than January in Syracuse, the Orangemen took a 17-8 lead. Navy's misses quickly were becoming Syracuse fastbreaks. A wise timeout with 13:40 left calmed things down, and slowly, the Midshipmen came back. Robinson, slow to start offensively, was merely fabulous on defense. Twice, he blocked two shots in one possession.
So, slowly, Navy crept back. From a 21-14 deficit, they went on a 10-2 burst, a muscle move by Butler giving them their first lead, 24-23, with 4:43 left. They seesawed until halftime, an acrobatic layup by freshman Derric Turner putting Navy up at the break, 32-31.
One year ago in a similar situation against Maryland, the Midshipmen had been worn out. Several of them had stretched out on the floor, exhausted at halftime. Eventually, they blew an 11-point lead in that game.
Not today. "We were mad," Robinson said. "We had shot terribly 11 for 25 or we would have had a six- or seven-point lead. We really wanted to get out and play in the second half."
Down the hall, Boeheim sensed he was in trouble. "Navy is going to score points eventually," he said. "We held them to 32 points in the first half and we were behind. I didn't like it at all."
After Howard Triche's basket gave Syracuse its last lead at 39-37 with 17:10 left, Navy took command. Butler put in a follow to tie the score. Robinson hit two free throws and dunked after Kylor Whitaker's miss to make it 43-39.
The Midshipmen built the lead to 55-46 on a gorgeous Wojcik-to-Reese-to-Robinson sequence that ended in another thunderous dunk. Syracuse crept back to 57-50 on a circus move by Washington but even with the crowd screeching, Navy didn't fold.
"Playing here in December an 89-67 loss helped us," Robinson said. "We knew what to expect and we knew how to handle it. This was so much different than last year. Then, we were just glad to be in the tournament. We were whooping it up. Today, we were relaxed. We just knew we had a job to go out and do."
They did it with cold-eyed efficiency in the last 10 minutes, building the lead to 70-53 on a three-point play by Butler with 6:26 to go and finishing the Orangemen off at the line as Syracuse fouled futilely. Overall, Navy made 41 of 52 foul shots, 31 of 38 in the second half.
In the end, even the Syracuse fans had to concede Navy's brilliance. When Robinson, who had all but guaranteed on Saturday that Navy would win, fouled out with 2:43 left, the fans stood and graciously applauded him.
Cleveland State proved today that it was more than just a one-game NCAA wonder. Forced to play at St. Joseph's pace for almost 30 minutes, the Vikings used their pressure defense to break open a tight game and beat the Hawks.
Cleveland State (29-3), the No. 14 seed in the Eastern regional which stunned Indiana Friday, used the same ingredients today that worked on the Hoosiers: pressure defense, a deep bench and balanced scoring.
Cleveland State got 23 points from 5-10 guard Ken (Mouse) McFadden, 17 from Clinton Ransey and 16 from Clinton Smith. It forced normally careful St. Joseph's (26-6) into 18 turnovers, 11 in the second half. From a 42-42 tie with 11:20 left, Cleveland State went on a 14-7 run to take control of the game and eventually built the lead to 12. Wayne Williams led St. Joseph's with 25 points and all-America guard Maurice Martin was held to 15.
"This is a fantastic experience for us," said Cleveland State Coach Kevin Mackey. "Our pressure wears you down. I'm excited about this group. We respect teams, but we don't respect them too much."