A handful of midshipmen showed up, and so did six members of the Navy band. Beyond that, it was the two teams, TV personnel and a handful of other media members. In all, there might have been about 200 people in a building that can seat 5,200.
“I’m just glad we’re playing,” Navy Coach Ed DeChellis said.
He spoke for everyone. Even in the eerily empty building, there was a feeling of normalcy. The two teams shot the ball remarkably well, given that no one had any preseason scrimmages and both coaches were trying to find a rotation that would be effective.
“We haven’t dealt with any adversity yet,” said DeChellis, who used 11 players by halftime. “You play against each other for weeks and weeks, and it can be hard to find out who can handle it when things get tough. We’ll start finding out now.”
DeChellis has dealt with adversity recently, even if his team hasn’t. On the last Monday in September, he was walking into Alumni Hall with strength coach Brandon Spayd and suddenly felt wobbly. “I was very warm and sweaty, and my left leg wouldn’t move correctly,” he said. “Brandon looked at me and said, ‘We’ve got to get you to the emergency room right away.’ I thought I was having a heart attack because the trouble was all on my left side.”
DeChellis, 62, wasn’t having a heart attack. He was having a stroke. He spent several days in the hospital, where he was also diagnosed with diabetes. “I have to give myself four insulin shots a day,” DeChellis said. “And I have to be sure I eat at the right times.” Following a healthier diet, DeChellis has lost 20 pounds and says he now has far more good days than bad days.
His team certainly made him feel a lot better during the first half Wednesday, making 17 of 31 shots from the field to lead 41-30 at the break. A lot of the Mids’ success was the result of consistently finding open shooters against GW’s 2-3 zone, a defense Colonials Coach Jamion Christian plans to play 100 percent of the time this season.
Christian is only 38 and is in his ninth season as a head coach. He had no health issues this fall, but he did have a concern coming into the game that had to do with the climate in the country right now.
“A lot of our guys want to kneel for the national anthem,” he said. “I have no problem with that. I think it’s up to each individual. But I didn’t think it was a good idea to do it at the Naval Academy, especially in a game called ‘The Veterans Classic.’
“I told the guys that I knew they wouldn’t be doing it to disrespect the military, but a lot of people would perceive it that way. Plus, I just didn’t like the idea of guys kneeling while opposite a group of guys who have volunteered to sacrifice themselves for the country if need be.”
Christian’s players ultimately agreed with him. They stood while a single midshipman, halfway up in the stands, sang the anthem.
“I would expect in future games, a lot of the guys will kneel,” Christian said. “I don’t believe I will, but I can see myself dropping my head to my heart and holding up a fist, the way Tommie Smith and John Carlos did at the ’68 Olympics.”
Christian did make a symbolic gesture when Wednesday’s game began, draping a white towel over his right shoulder as an homage to John Thompson Jr., the former Georgetown coach who died in August.
Once the game began, it was — blessedly — basketball. The good news for Christian is that the three players he has the highest hopes for all played well. James Bishop, a point guard from Baltimore who transferred from LSU; Jamison Battle, who looked much quicker after losing 15 pounds during the offseason; and Jameer Nelson Jr. All three are sophomores. Bishop and Battle scored 20 points apiece and Nelson had 18 — with Bishop adding nine assists.
“That’s the thing about Bishop: He can really score, but he’s also a great passer,” Christian said before the game. “He’s always three-to-one assists-to-turnovers in practice.” He was also three-to-one in his first game as a Colonial: nine assists, three turnovers.
The rest of his teammates, however, combined for 13 turnovers and five assists. But the real problem for GW came at the defensive end of the floor. For most of the day, Navy shredded the 2-3 zone, finding open men constantly. That was reflected in the Mids’ 26-9 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“We weren’t expecting them to play that much zone, but we’re a pretty good zone offense team,” DeChellis said. “You find open shooters and make shots, you’re going to look pretty good.”
Navy never trailed. The last tie was at 3-3, and the lead grew to as much as 13 in the second half. When GW cut the margin to 53-49, the Mids found senior captain Cam Davis wide open in the middle of the zone and he hit back-to-back foul line jumpers to stretch the lead back to 57-49. That was as close as it got.
GW doesn’t play again until Tuesday, when it will host Hampton. For the Mids, there’s no rest for the weary-but-happy. They play at Maryland on Friday, host Mount St. Mary’s on Saturday and go to Georgetown on Tuesday.
“Guess we’ll find out a lot about ourselves in the next week,” DeChellis said with a laugh.
At least for one covid-free afternoon, most of what they found out felt good. And, after the postgame fist bumps, the players and coaches all stood for the playing of the alma mater. The chills that always accompany the playing of “Navy Blue and Gold” felt perfect. Absolutely perfect.
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