WEST POINT, N.Y. -- There is a popular theory in basketball that says it is extremely difficult to beat a conference rival three times in the same season.
Against all odds, Lehigh proved this point yesterday by eliminating heavily favored Navy, 53-45, in the opening round of the Patriot League tournament.
This had all the makings of a classic mismatch. The second-seeded Midshipmen (20-7), seeking their third straight league title and NCAA bid, had won the two regular-season meetings with the injury-riddled Mountain Hawks by 30 and 33 points.
In fact, Lehigh, which lost its top scorer, Brett Eppeheimer to a season-ending stress fracture in December, entered the game on an 18-game losing streak -- 0-12 in conference play. Its last win came against Division III Hobart on Dec. 19.
But Lehigh (6-21) erased a winter of misery with one improbable victory.
"We not only matched them physically, but also mentally," said overjoyed Lehigh coach Sal Mentasna, who surprised Navy by changing from his traditional man-to-man defense to a zone to neutralize the Midshipmen's strong inside game.
It forced the Midshipmen to shoot from the perimeter with disastrous results. They set a school record for ineptitude, making 22 percent (17-for-76) of their field-goal attempts. Their 45 points were 20 below their season average and an all-time tournament low.
Navy also missed 20 straight three-point attempts before Chris Williams' three-pointer with 10 seconds left.
With the exception of aggressive sophomore forward Robert Reeder, who made six of his 12 shots, Navy was 11-for-64 from the field. Most glaring was an 0-for-11 scoreless performance by senior guard Skip Victor, an inspirational leader who was a second team All-Patriot League selection.
"I'm the team captain, and I didn't do anything to help us win. today," said Victor, who did produce eight rebounds and four steals. "In the past, I've found other ways to contribute, but today the team needed me to score."
Team scoring leader Williams rushed shots all afternoon, hitting only four of 17, and inside force Sitapha Savane (3-for-10) also struggled.
Still, the Midshipmen might have survived had they converted free throws in the closing minutes.
They led, 41-36, with 5: 34 remaining, but Lehigh scored eight straight before Savane made one of two free-throw attempts with 1: 02 left. During this scoring famine, Reeder missed four straight free throws and Navy finished 10-for-18 from the foul line. Conversely, the Mountain Hawks converted 16 of 20 free throws.
There were three major contributors for the unlikely winners. Junior forward Fido Willybiro, from Kensington, Md., scored 15 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Senior guard Jared Hess scored a game-high 20 points. He made a critical jumper under pressure with 50 seconds left to give Lehigh a 46-42 edge and then joined Willybiro in converting four straight free throws to seal it. And reserve guard Steve Aylsworth scored six points in the last 3: 30.
"Even when we were down five with five minutes left, I said, 'No big deal,' " Hess said. "Heck, the last two times we played Navy, the games were over by halftime."
DeVoe, who also saw his Midshipmen suffer a major tournament upset against Army in 1996, said, "I think this is a game that will stand forever in helping coaches prepare for lower seeds.
"They hung tough, and we just couldn't score. It's what tournament play is all about, and Lehigh deserves all the credit in the world for overcoming a season of adversity."
LEHIGH -- Handerhan 0-0 0-0 0, Willybiro 6-13 3-4 15, Brown 1-3 0-0 2, Hawkins 0-3 0-0 0, Hess 6-12 6-6 20, Lacayo 1-3 1-1 3, Willis 2-3 1-3 6, Aylsworth 1-5 5-6 7, Taylor 0-1 0-0 0, Mbom 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 17-44 16-20 53.
NAVY -- C. Williams 4-17 1-2 10, Reeder 6-12 1-6 13, Savane 3-10 2-3 8, Skipworth 1-8 0-0 2, Victor 0-11 0-0 0, Worthing 0-1 0-0 0, Lewis 1-9 4-4 6, Josh Williams 1-4 2-3 4, John Williams 0-1 0-0 0, Hill 1-3 0-0 2. Totals 17-76 10-18 45.
Halftime--Lehigh 23, 20. 3-point goals--L 3-6 (Hess 2-3, Willis 1-1, Aylsworth 0-1, Hawkins 0-1), N 1-20 (C. Williams 1-5, Worthing 0-1, John Williams 0-1, Skipworth 0-2, Lewis 0-5, Victor 0-6). Fouled out--Reeder. Rebounds--L 43 (Willybiro 10), N 51 (Reeder 12). Assists-- L 9 (Aylsworth 5), N 5 (Victor 2).Technical fouls--None. Total fouls--L 17, N 22.
Pub Date: 2/28/99