OGDEN, Utah -- Never mind the final score, Navy's first NCAA tournament appearance since 1987 was an unqualified success, seeing as how it caused Missouri coach Norm Stewart to temporarily lose his mind.
Yes, that was Mr. March, the coach of the West's No. 1 seed, yanking his starters with 5:50 left in the first half in favor of five substitutes who would be hard-pressed to win the Patriot League.
Oh, the Missouri reserves rallied the Tigers from a 20-17 deficit to a 29-26 halftime lead, and the starters finally broke the game open midway through the second half after Navy had pulled within one point with 11:23 left.
The final was Missouri 76, Navy 53, but this was no 23-point blowout. For 30 minutes, non-scholarship Navy had the No. 5 team in the nation reeling. For 30 minutes, the Midshipmen dreamed the big dream.
"We talked about a team that could make history," coach Don DeVoe said, and it might have happened, if Navy hadn't missed 26 of its 33 three-point attempts, if it hadn't shot 27.8 percent overall.
Heck, even with 7:39 left, all things still seemed possible. Jim Hamilton hit a three-pointer, and just like that, Missouri's lead was down to six. "I was like, 'Wow, we can do this,' " guard T. J. Hall said.
They couldn't, of course, but it was quite a night, quite an effort, quite a scare. Imagine if Navy's two biggest players, Alex Kohnen and Brad Cougher, had shot better than a combined 3-for-16. Or if a few more of Hamilton's threes had fallen.
A year ago, the Midshipmen won eight games. Five weeks ago, theywere 5-10. And last night, they again played without senior guard and captain Victor Mickel, who has been suspended the (( entire postseason for disciplinary reasons.
Nice night for the Big Eight. Missouri struggled to beat the Patriot League champion, while Nebraska suffered a 10-point loss to Penn, the Ivy League champion. The Buffalo Bills should apply for membership.
Then again, it wasn't just Missouri.
Seven teams seeded No. 11 or lower made the first day of the tournament even wilder than usual. Penn and Wisconsin-Green Bay were the only ones to score upsets, but Charleston nearly stunned Wake Forest and Pepperdine took Michigan to overtime. Hawaii led Syracuse at the half. Rider was tied with Connecticut.
A Navy victory would have been the ultimate -- a No. 16 beating a No. 1 for the first time, the biggest upset in tournament history. And late in the first half, when Stewart pulled his entire starting lineup,it didn't seem all that impossible.
"I think the coach was pretty mad at 'em," Hall said, smiling.
Pretty mad? Stewart was livid. The guards he inserted -- Jed Frost and Chip Walther -- had combined for 55 minutes in Missouri's first 28 games. Frost hadn't scored since the second game of the season. Walther hadn't scored in more than a month.
As a whole, the Flub Five was averaging a combined 8.6 points per game. The center, Chris Heller, is a 6-foot-10 stiff who made Shawn Bradley look like Shaquille O'Neal. When Marlo Thomas Finner -- yes, Thomas is his middle name -- hit back-to-back three-pointers, it doubled his season output.
But evidently, this was normal for Norm.
"I assured them [the starters] that we have confidence in them," Stewart said. "They knew from the other day in practice when the same thing happened. The substitute group beat the starters in shoot-around. We put the subs in to give the starters time to sit back and take a look and then get back into the game."
Maybe the subs should be seeded No. 1.
Navy ended the half trailing by only three points -- even though it shot only 34.5 percent, even though it committed nine turnovers.
The Midshipmen out-rebounded their taller, more physical opponents, 20-18. For the game, they were only out-rebounded 52-50.
How crazy was it? Navy's 5-8 point guard, Brian Walker, had more rebounds at the half (three) than Missouri's 6-9 center, Jevon Crudup (one). Walker finished with eight rebounds.
So, blowout or not, Navy made the trip worthwhile. Walker's parents paid approximately $2,000 in airfares from Marion, Ind. Hamilton's father drove two hours to Cleveland from his home in Erie, Pa., and thought his $560 airline ticket was a steal.
"It seems like I've been hitting up my credit union every weekend for an advance," said Jim Hamilton Sr., a high school teacher and former coach. "If I have to go an extra week, I'll have to find a sponsor."
That won't be necessary now, but Hamilton could barely contain his excitement as he waited for the tip-off at the Dee Events Center, on the campus of Weber State, in a sleepy town at the foot of the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains.
"You think of your son playing, and this is the dream right here," Hamilton said. "Who would have ever thought, right? This is something else. I've never seen anything like this."
Navy, hanging tough with Missouri.
Who would have thought, indeed.