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Navy Team Takes Armed Forces Basketball Championship

By Richardson Miron
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., July 26, 2005 – Change is good. But in the case of the all-Navy basketball team, change couldn't be any better.

The Navy, buoyed by the arrival of rookie coach Sam Caldwell and 11 first-time all-Navy players, snatched the gold medal July 24 at the Armed Forces Basketball Championship here.

The decisive victory for the squad came on the final day of the double round-robin tournament among the four military branches, when the Navy stopped the Army, 85-71, in front of more than 200 spectators at the Paige Field House. The win gave the Navy its fourth victory, making the tournament's last game -- a match-up between the Marine Corps and the Air Force -- nothing more than a battle for the silver medal, which the Air Force took, 75-72.

"My goal when I first came in was to change the stereotype of the Navy (basketball team)," Caldwell said after a victory celebration with his players at mid-court. When Caldwell took over the program earlier this year, he didn't know exactly what he had to work with. But it would have been easy to assume not much.

The squad didn't have a profound hoops history, finishing in the cellar three of the last four years and four of the last six, and had only one player, reserve guard Ray-Jay Johnson, (returning from a squad that finished 1-5 at last year's event.

Despite the uncertainty, Caldwell was convinced of one thing. "I knew we weren't going to finish last again," Caldwell said. "I told the guys, 'We're sure as hell not going to let that happen this time.'"

Behind the strong play of all-tournament selections Francis Ebong and Taj Matthews, the Navy won its final three games to capture the tournament for the first time since 1996.

The squad's final two victories proved to be its most crucial. On July 23, the squad had to get through the Marines, who had beaten the Navy on a 3-pointer at the buzzer by George Baez four days earlier.

The Marines had started the tournament with three straight victories and appeared on the verge of their fourth title in the event's long history. But standing in their way was a hungry Navy unit that had different ideas.

Behind the strong play of Ebong, who scored 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds, the Navy rallied back from a double-digit first-half deficit against the Marines to win 83-76, setting the stage for critical showdown against the Army on July 24.

The Navy, which led by as many as 14 points in the second half in the pivotal match-up with the Army, saw its lead dwindle to just 1, when Craig Marcelin went strong to the hole for a bucket with just more than five minutes remaining.

But the Navy, led by the 6-foot-9 center Ebong (14 points, 17 rebounds, three assists) and four other players who scored in double figures, finished the game on a 19-6 run to defeat the tournament's defending champion, Army, 85-71, and lay claim to the gold medal.

"It was a surprise," Caldwell admitted when asked if the Navy's first-place finish should come as a shock to military hoops enthusiasts. "When you look at the history of the program, it has to be a surprise. But I wanted to come out and show this year that this is a new Navy. ... We have a new mentality."

(Richardson Miron writes for the Camp Pendleton newspaper, The Scout.)

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