During the radio broadcast of Navy’s 72-66 win over Holy Cross in Alumni Hall two weeks ago, Bob Socci commented more than once about how flustered Holy Cross looked, while Navy was playing with relative composure. The Crusaders had won the regular-season Patriot League title four of the last seven years, while the upstart Navy team had finished either last or next to last in the League every year since 2001-2002. If you hadn’t already known that going in, you might have had the history of these two teams mixed up while watching the end of that game.
It was an important step for Billy Lange’s squad. In the past– as recently as a month earlier against Army– the Mids had a tendency to overreact. Their fast-paced, 3-point shooting style of play meant that it wasn’t at all unusual for them to race out to an early lead against teams that weren’t mentally prepared to handle that kind of aggressive basketball. But basketball is a game of runs, and when the other team started to get a little bit of momentum, Navy got way too desperate, way too early. Shot selection got worse. Passing was forced, leading to more turnovers. There were more fouls 20+ feet from the basket. Added up, it compounded the problem. What should have been an 8-0 run would become a game-altering 20-4 run. Navy would panic themselves out of games.
But that didn’t happen that night, nor did it happen at any other point during the 6-game winning streak that shot Navy to the top of the conference standings. In only one of those 6 games– at home against American– did Navy win a game by a double-digit margin. Against Army, the Mids actually had to claw their way back from a 10-point deficit. Navy didn’t build a huge lead and coast to victory in those six games; they played hard-fought basketball for 40 minutes, and found ways to pull away at the end. They were composed.
In the Patriot League tournament quarterfinals last night against Bucknell, we saw both the best and the worst of Navy basketball. It was an entire season wrapped into one game. The first half was the best of Navy; the 3-point shooting, Greg Sprink driving to the basket, and an aggressive defense that leads to steals. The second half was the opposite; Navy shot only 28% from the floor while allowing Bucknell to hit 52% of their shots and erase a 10-point lead that Navy had going into the locker room.
I was very tempted last night to call it a choke, but that wouldn’t be fair. Yes, Navy blew a 17-point lead, and the game should not have gone to overtime. But it did. And once overtime began, the composure that was missing in second half reappeared. Kaleo Kina’s 3-pointer to send the game into a third overtime was as clutch as it gets. T.J. Topercer’s rebound and putback with two seconds left in that third overtime should have been good enough to win the game. Sometimes miracles happen, but when they do it’s really only a miracle for one team. For the other, it’s a curse. I’m not sure what we did to deserve that kind of retribution, but if you’re reading, Karma– I consider our debt to be paid.
You win some, you lose some, you have your heart so thoroughly ripped to shreds that you wonder if caring so much is reducing your life span some. Such is life in the world of sports. Another fact of a sports fan’s life is that the end of one season only means the beginning of offseason speculation and looking ahead to the next season. And the big question for Navy next season is what life will be like without Greg Sprink. The Patriot League Player of the Year was a statistical juggernaut, leading the conference in scoring, finishing second in rebounding, and ranking in the top 15 in both assists and steals. How can Billy Lange replace that kind of production? Well, he can’t– not with one player, anyway. But taking a look at who is returning for the Mids, one can find each of Greg’s best qualities divided amongst them. Chris Harris has proven that he can be a reliable long-range scoring threat. Clif Colbert can make athletic moves to the basket. Romeo Garcia does all the little things you don’t usually see in a freshman, playing tough defense, fighting for rebounds, blocking shots, and grabbing steals. He is only going to get better as his offensive game develops. O.J. Avworo will be stepping in as a true point guard, directing the offense and dishing out assists– the 3.1 per game that he averaged as a freshman at Idaho would have been in the top 10 in the Patriot League this year. Sprink’s ability will still be on the team; it just won’t be concentrated in one man. As a result, the team might actually be tougher to defend, as defenses won’t be able to focus on stopping one player. Add in Kaleo Kina’s ability to take over a game on occasion, Adam Teague’s 3-point shooting, and the continued development of players like Mark Veazey (who showed flashes of brilliance at times), Jeremy Wilson, and T.J. Topercer, and there is every reason to believe that Navy will actually be better next year.
But that’s next year. Right now, the end of this year still stings. Yet as tough as the last game was to endure, it shouldn’t hang over the season as a whole. Should this season be considered a success? Despite losing a shot at the regular-season Patriot League title and flaming out once again in the tournament quarterfinals, I think the answer has to be “yes.” This season proved a lot. When the Patriot League started allowing basketball scholarships, there were people who thought that Navy wouldn’t be able to contend for the league title again. This year showed that we can. As Bucknell was winning NCAA tournament games and Holy Cross advanced in the NIT, some people questioned whether Navy would be able to produce talent capable of matching up with the Patriot League’s best. But the conference’s top player this year wore the Blue & Gold. Other people said that a service academy wouldn’t be able to win playing up-tempo basketball, and that Navy’s only shot to be competitive in the Patriot League was to play a Princeton offense. But Billy Lange has a Coach of the Year award that proves that isn’t the case. And with two starters and a key reserve leaving the team before the start of the season, some people– including me– asked themselves how the Mids would be able to respond. The answer? Brilliantly, with the team’s first overall winning season and best conference finish since 2000-2001. Make no mistake, now– Navy basketball is still a work in progress. But this year we could finally see some of that progress, and there’s no reason to think that the trend won’t continue.