This was dreaded ‘X’ week at the Naval Academy, when the Midshipmen take exams. With a road trip Wednesday to the most distant outpost in the Patriot League, Holy Cross, it was an especially taxing week for the basketball team including top scorer Worth Smith who pulled an all-nighter early in the week.
Saturday against the deepest team in the Patriot League, Navy summoned up one of its best efforts this season, but in the end, the fatigue of the Mids showed. After leading most of the way, Navy couldn’t keep up in the later stages of a 56-55 loss before a sellout crowd of 5,710 at Alumni Hall.
Trying to complete its second sweep of Army in three years, Navy (7-19, 1-9) had a chance to win it after three free throws by freshman Kendall Knorr with 42 seconds left and a pair of missed layups by the Black Knights. But coming out of a timeout with 8.1 seconds left and trailing by one point, freshman Tilman Dunbar’s floater in the lane was short of the rim as time expired.
While Army (12-13, 5-5) celebrated the clutch work of senior Ella Ellis, who scored 10 of his 12 points in the final 12:05, and freshman Kyle Wilson (12 points), Navy rued a blown seven-point lead in the second half. After making the Black Knights work hard for everything in the opening 27 minutes, the Mids appeared to lose their zeal to defend and surrendered open lanes to the basket.
“It might have had a little bit of an effect,” Smith said of Navy’s fatigue. “But that’s something we should fight through.”
The 6-foot-6 sophomore had 14 points and eight rebounds, both game highs, and stifled the 6-6 Ellis for much of the game. But playing 38 minutes eventually took a toll. Ellis, who worked 26 minutes, was fresh for the stretch run and ignited the rally with a pair of 3-pointers. Later, Ellis scored a pair of easy baskets in the paint.
“As the game wore on, it loosened up,” Army coach Zach Spiker said. “We got to the rim a little better.”
With a roster that includes 24 players and a rotation that employed half of them on Saturday, Army plays an up-tempo style designed to wear down opponents. The results have been impressive as the Black Knights have a chance to notch their first winning season since 1984-85. On Saturday, Spiker became the first Army coach since Mike Krzyzewski to win his third Star Game (second meeting each season with Navy).
“I didn’t do anything today. It was our guys who made plays,” Spiker said. “Coaches probably get too much credit when there’s a win.”
When Smith hit a 3-pointer on Navy’s first possession, the Mids took a 3-2 lead that they would hold until deep into the second half. A midcourt 3-pointer by sophomore Brandon Venturini gave Navy a 30-24 halftime lead.
But when Ellis made his first field goal of the game, a 3-pointer with 12:05 left, it ignited a 20-7 run which transformed a seven-point deficit into a six-point lead, 56-50, with 2:58 to go.
Navy rallied as Dunbar (12 points, five assists) hit a jumper. In the closing seconds, when Army missed back-to-back layups, the Mids had a chance to push the ball up-court, but settled for a timeout that was not directed from the bench, Navy coach Ed DeChellis said.
“It’s just a freshman mistake,” DeChellis said. “In a possession game you get a three-on-one run-out, you get a layup, and there’s no time left, and we’re all singing and dancing. Didn’t happen. So now we’re nine seconds, we gotta go full length of the court. We let them set their defense.”