With more than 10 minutes left in the basketball game and Navy trailing by a boatload of points, the Duke student body began suggesting in the form of a chant that the Naval Academy should "Abandon ship!"
The Midshipmen stayed aboard, but it really was that bad. Duke, the No. 1-ranked team in the country and top-seeded in the NCAA tournament's East region, outrebounded Navy by a two-to-one margin most of today's game, and advanced to next weekend's Final Four in Dallas with a 71-50 victory over Navy before 19,454 in Byrne Arena.
"Even when you play well against Duke you've got trouble," Navy Coach Paul Evans said. "But when you play poorly, you've got 21 points worth of trouble."
So, while Duke moved on to a national semifinal date Saturday with Kansas, the only true Cinderella team left in the tournament was eliminated after 16 straight victories had stirred up a lot of sentiment. Even some uniformed Army cadets were in attendance screaming for rival Navy. The help Navy (30-5) needed, however, was not morale but on the backboards.
Duke's 36th victory, which ties an NCAA record, was achieved primarily because the Blue Devils (36-2) attacked the glass -- especially on the offensive end -- so fiercely that it shocked the Midshipmen.
Duke all-America guard Johnny Dawkins led all scorers with 28 points, and had seven rebounds in the first half. Forward Mark Alarie had 18 points and eight rebounds, with five offensive rebound baskets in the first half.
Center Jay Bilas scored only four points but cleared 10 rebounds. Even little Tommy Amaker, the Duke point guard, checked in with five rebounds, just one fewer than Navy's all-time leading rebounder, Vernon Butler.
In all, the Blue Devils outrebounded Navy, 49-29. Of Duke's first 32 points, 20 were a direct result of offensive rebounds. By the time the game was 19 minutes old, Duke had taken 37 shots to Navy's 18, which more than offset the fact that the Blue Devils shot just 35 percent the first half.
By intermission, when Duke held a 34-22 lead, the Blue Devils had run up a 34-15 rebounding advantage. Bilas and Dawkins had more rebounds than the entire Navy team.
"We played like girls inside today," Navy center David Robinson said, after his 23-point, 10-rebound day. "We expected their guards Dawkins and Amaker to be great. But I didn't expect them to get that many offensive rebounds.
"Every time I turned around they had an offensive rebound. I never could have predicted that. We were playing weak. Yeah, they got position sometimes, but other times we had equal position, we'd get our hands on the ball and they would still come away with the rebound."
And as Evans said, following what may have been his final game as Navy's coach: "It's not too difficult to tell the story of this game; they just outmuscled us inside."
There were other signs that Duke really deserves its No. 1 national rank, heading into Dallas' Reunion Arena for Saturday afternoon's game with No. 2 Kansas.
The Blue Devils basically decided to play 7-foot Robinson straight up, and not let the other Midshipmen take over the game.
Great strategy. Butler, Navy's 6-7 senior forward who had 23 points in last week's rout of Syracuse, made one of five shots from the field. He scored eight points.
Alarie, who played staggeringly strong defense, beat Butler to every spot on the floor. "Three or four times when they tried to get me a bounce pass, he just stepped in front and stole it," Butler said. "I never could get that short bank shot and it was really frustrating."
Bilas, always quick with a line, said: "We knew Vernon liked to make contact when he shot so we gave him a little."
Kylor Whitaker, Navy's 6-6 senior guard who had 23 points in Friday night's semifinal victory over Cleveland State, was held to 10. Dawkins and Amaker were in his path every step. "There weren't a whole lot of openings," Whitaker said.
As difficult as it was to grasp afterward, Navy actually had a chance early in the game to open a big lead.
When Robinson jammed a lob pass from Doug Wojcik with 8:05 to play in the first half, Navy took an 18-16 lead. And after Duke's David Henderson missed a jumper from the right corner, Robinson followed a missed shot by Butler with another slam that made it 20-16, with 7:15 to play before intermission.
"We had done some stupid things," Robinson said, "and they were killing us on the boards. But we were still up four, and figured we were in pretty good shape."
Evans even noticed that most of his players "were over the jitters."
Navy played great defense the next time down the floor, looking to go ahead by six. But the Midshipmen gave up three shots on one possession, and Alarie put in the final one to make it 20-18.
The next 2 1/2 minutes would decide the game. Whitaker committed a charging foul. And Amaker hit a jumper to tie the game, 20-20. Robinson committed one of Navy's 17 turnovers, and Alarie capitalized with a jumper for 22-20.
Butler missed a bank shot, Wojcik blew the front end of a bonus foul shooting set, and Duke's Billy King wound up scoring an offensive rebound basket for 24-20. Whitaker missed again, and Alarie grabbed a missed shot by Dawkins, then scored the layup for 26-20.
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski made a great move in the last four minutes of the half by going to a 2-3 zone and inserting 7-foot-2 reserve Martin Nessley. The zone, a rarity for Duke, threw off the Midshipmen, and Nessley blocked one jumper by Cliff Rees and altered another.
The Blue Devils would score twice more on offensive rebounds before the half and complete an 18-2 run to lead by 12. Then Dawkins would break out for 14 points as Duke scored 22 of the second half's first 33 to put it away at 56-33.
Dawkins was voted the regional's outstanding player.
"I was pretty shocked," Whitaker said. "It's always been a luxury, as a guard, to have David and Vernon rebounding. It's been a sure thing: 'They'll get the boards.' "
Part of Navy's problem with rebounding is that the Midshipmen, virtually devoid of quickness except for Robinson, absolutely have to play zone defense.
And as Alarie explained: "Anytime you play a zone you tend not to block out. That's just the way basketball is. It happens to me in zone. A good offensive rebounder is going to take advantage of the lanes provided. We crashed the boards with four players every time and frustrated them."
So, the Atlantic Coast Conference champion heads first back to Durham, N.C., then down to Dallas. Krzyzewski said the thing he likes most about his team is, "It has stood the true test of an outstanding basketball team: we were rated high, people have taken their best shot at you and you still come out on top."
The Midshipmen might not have taken their best shot today, but the Navy story is a success story.
"We accomplished something no other Navy team and no other service academy team had ever accomplished," Whitaker said. "We have no reason to walk out of this locker room with our heads down."