ANNAPOLIS — ANNAPOLIS -- Navy is nine years removed from its last appearance in the NCAA tournament. Bucknell won a game there 11 months ago.
Two programs that recently have viewed the Patriot League from opposite ends met at Alumni Hall last night. Despite having one of their premier players out indefinitely with a broken hand, the Bison posted a 78-63 win over the Midshipmen.
Navy (11-12, 1-7 Patriot League) lost its fifth consecutive game, while Bucknell (14-8, 8-1) won its sixth straight since a loss at Holy Cross, the Patriot League leader.
The Mids thought they had something to cheer about their 100th year of basketball when they led late in the first half, but the Bison went on a 9-0 run and didn't look back. They got 15 points from junior guard John Griffin and nearly doubled Navy's rebound total.
"We had great energy and physical toughness. That's what you have to have against Bucknell," Navy coach Billy Lange said. "We wanted to tinker some ... [but] 23 games into the season, playing guys you haven't played is weird."
By halftime, Lange had used 13 players, including five plebes and five sophomores. The Mids send one of the youngest teams in the nation into a league awash with veterans, one reason Lange is buoyant about a renaissance.
Trey Stanton, a 6-foot-10 plebe, has twice been the Patriot League Rookie of the Week. Classmate Chris Harris made three three-pointers in the first eight minutes of the second half, and junior guard Greg Sprink had 18 points, becoming the fifth Navy junior to reach 1,000 points for his career.
Navy went to the NCAA tournament three times between 1994 and '98, and won 62 games over the next three seasons, going 19-12 in 2000-01.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred just as the current Bucknell seniors were entering their junior year of high school. They are the first Bison class that received athletic scholarships, after the Patriot League gave in to the times.
"There are three dynamics to consider," Lange said. "First is the advance of scholarships in the league. Second, there is no baseline, it's up to the institution who gets them. Third is the global war on terrorism.
"I believe in our job here. All I know is that there's a different mentality between football and basketball players. That's why my hat goes off to Air Force."
Air Force is ranked No. 17 and owns a share of first place in the Mountain West Conference.
Bucknell has overachieved in its own right, behind the senior class of Donald Brown, the injured forward; center Chris McNaughton, who had 13 points and 12 rebounds; and guard Abe Badmus. The Bison won games in each of the past two NCAA tournaments, upsetting third-seeded Kansas in 2005.
"The addition of scholarships allowed us to get into more homes early," Bucknell coach Pat Flannery said, "but we're still recruiting a lot of the same kids we did before. We have academic indicators that do not bend, and it's still a small pool of recruits we consider."
Navy last had a winner in 2000-01, and optimism soared when the Mids got off to a 7-2 start.
"When we were 7-2," Lange said, "I told the staff, 'We can play well, but we're going to end up where we're going to end up.' Our fundamentals, end-of-the-game stuff, those are things that come with experience. We're definitely better this season, but this is the first time going through this for a lot of our kids."