Navy's basketball team being where it is just now is a bit like Belgium suddenly ruling the high seas. Or so it seems to nearly everone except Navy's basketball team.

The Midshipmen and that other traditional NCAA power, Cleveland State, had just finished a classic of sorts Friday night. In addition to the drama and controversy that games of this magnitude ought to provide, there was the unexpected joy of relatively unknown players performing as though reared in a spotlight.

The Midshipmen won a gutsy game by being brilliant and lucky. They proved to have more than one tall ship in their fleet after all.

Guns directed by computers are no more accurate than Kylor Whitaker most of the night. Any back alley in the world would be safe with Vernon Butler nearby.

David Robinson you know about. Until two weeks ago, he was unknown to nearly everyone not consumed by basketball. Neither is he, which makes him unusual in sport at this level.

"That's a superstar, gentlemen," said the losing coach, Kevin Mackey. "I've said he was the best guy in the country. Number one. I salute him and admire him. He's a great example to the youth of this country."

Make that a great example for all but maybe a seven- or eight-minute stretch in the second half. He was a snoozing superstar about to find himself next to the coach he failed to awaken.

Paul Evans is tough to please. You get the feeling that were he inspecting bunks, the half-dollar had better bounce all the way to the ceiling or it's guard duty for a week.

This impression came because Evans failed to get as excited over Navy's one-point victory as those who watched it. Instead of being giddy about being among the final eight teams left in the tournament, he half apologized for his team "not playing real well" the entire game.

On the bench, he scolded Robinson for not being being more aggressive against the bumps and hips the Vikings aimed his way. He was angry with other Midshipmen for trying to play as though they had Robinson's special ability.

"Going their own way," the coach said of the sudden departure of cohesion. "Guards anticipating steals. We can't do that. We had to win it our way.

"The right way."

That means being cerebral against a collection of free-lancers; that means being bright enough to overcome faster players with long passes; that means staying calm with defeat just a few inches away.

It also means being lucky.

Here we follow the ball on the critical play that did not involve putting the ball in the basket. In the time it took Doug Wojick to all but see his basketball life pass before him, Navy was saved.

He had thrown a pass too high for even the 7-foot Robinson to control. The ball rattled off the backboard and -- horrifyingly -- into the hands of Cleveland State's Paul Stewart.

Close by, Butler knew something drastic was necessary. With his team down a point with less than 10 seconds left, he needed a swat at the ball. He wanted a steal. If he happened to hack Stewart and draw a foul, that wasn't the worst thing that could happen.

What followed was the touch of controversy that elevated the game even more, because the Vikings and their fans insist Butler nailed Stewart.

"I was right there, calling for the ball," said teammate Shawn Hood. "To be honest, I saw the foul. I saw two guys foul him."

The officials saw Butler's hands wrapped around the ball Stewart also held.

Whistle. Held ball. Possession Midshipmen, because it was their turn.

Butler, the sly one, said: "He turned toward me with the ball , and that was lucky. . . . If I did foul him , there was no call."

The players left smiling; Evans left relieved.

For Evans, it was no fluke that Navy has advanced so far. To him, losing to Cleveland State would have been an embarrassment.

Or at least the way his team was playing while gift-wrapping a Vikings comeback.

Playing its game, Navy was excellent early. Cleveland State got what it wanted the first half, Robinson in foul trouble. Navy got more than it dreamed, a sizable halftime lead.

"We went at him with two and three guys," Mackey said, "because we don't have anyone who can guard him."

The one nearest would nudge him now and then, the way a carpenter nudges a contrary piece of wood that won't part with a nail.

Robinson once was tapped five times by Stewart. That was one more than he could get away with. As usual, Robinson sank the free throws.

That exceptional foul-shooting also has been something that has surprised the masses, but not Evans.

Under 70 percent for the season, Robinson has been almost unerring in the NCAA tournament.

"He's hit every foul shot we've ever needed," the coach insisted.

For Evans, Cleveland State probably seemed a team touched with magic, but not any tougher than lots of teams the Midshipmen have beaten this season.

He is not here on any free passes, saying in his postgame press conference that a scuffle between Robinson and Cleveland State's Ray Salters awakened the officials. They started using their whistles.

"If that's the best we have, we're hurting. At this stage," Evans said.

He knows his team can play better; he hopes it will follow a pattern set in last week's opening round: perform much better the second game.

"If we play well," he said, "we can play with anybody."