Navy men’s basketball had nine days between games during the Thanksgiving break, giving coach Ed DeChellis and his staff time to develop a young squad and address the issues that led to four straight losses to start the season.
Navy returned to action following the long layoff against Virginia Military Institute, an opponent it has dominated over the years, except for last season. Having plenty of preparation time and motivation to get payback from last year’s loss to the Keydets proved a winning combination for the Mids.
Sophomore point guard Austin Benigni had a strong all-around floor game with 15 points, eight rebounds and three assists and Navy used suffocating defense to defeat VMI, 67-47, before a sparse crowd at Alumni Hall on Wednesday night.
Sophomore forward Donovan Draper had a breakout performance with 15 points, nine rebounds and five steals for the Mids, who led from start to finish. Junior forward Mitch Fischer chipped in 10 points for Navy (1-4), which now leads the all-time series with VMI 24-2.
Freshman swingman Koree Cotton scored 18 points to lead VMI (2-6), which was harassed into 33% (17-for-51) field goal shooting and 26 turnovers by an aggressive Navy defense.
DeChellis said the coaching staff went back to basics during the layoff. Defense and rebounding, the hallmarks of any DeChellis-coached team, were the primary focus. Through four games, opponents were shooting 62% on two-point attempts, which seriously displeased the veteran coach.
“Teams were getting way too many shots in the paint and we were getting soft in the last eight minutes,” he said. “We really worked on guarding the ball, being in our gaps and trying to play five guys versus the ball and helping each other. We were leaving each other on islands I thought.”
Navy showed improvement on the defensive end with Draper’s effort helping the team total 14 steals. The Mids pressured the ball, provided solid help defense and contested shots.
“I thought defensively we had to be really, really good tonight and I thought we were for 30 to 35 minutes,” DeChellis said.
Inactivity hasn’t helped the development process for the Midshipmen, who played only five games in November, their fewest in the opening month of the season since the 2005-06 season.
Meanwhile, it was just the second home game for Navy, which was back in Alumni Hall for the first time since falling to Temple in the Veterans Classic.
Junior guard Mac MacDonald chipped in nine points for Navy, which scored 34 points in the paint and another 22 points off turnovers. Draper and Kam Summers (seven points) did most of the damage as the Mids scored 27 bench points.
Draper was recruited to play basketball and football at Navy and chose the gridiron over the hardwood. He was on the football roster as a plebe, but elected to play basketball instead as a sophomore.
It has taken time to knock off the rust as Draper had not played in a competitive basketball game since his senior season in high school. The long and athletic 6-foot-5 forward came in averaging 5.8 points and 6.5 rebounds.
“[Draper] rebounds the ball, plays hard and is an active guy. He’s still learning,” DeChellis said. “He’s a sophomore class-wise, but he’s a freshman because he hasn’t played in two years. It’s all the little nuances that Donovan doesn’t really understand yet.”
While the Midshipmen made improvement defensively Wednesday night, they continue to struggle offensively. DeChellis just shook his head after looking at the final box score and seeing his squad shot 3-for-28 from 3-point range.
“Offensively, we’re still not shooting the ball very well. We’ve got to start making some shots,” he said. “I thought we had open shots, we just couldn’t make them. We manufactured points off turnovers, but in the free-flowing offense we didn’t make shots we need to make.”
Benigni heavily struggled shooting, finishing 5-for-18 from the field, including 0-for-6 from beyond the arc. DeChellis said the point guard needs to focus on distributing and be more judicious in terms of shot selection.
“You’ve got to pass the ball more. He’s open, but that was part of their plan — to go under ball screens and let him shoot,” DeChellis said.
DeChellis shortened the bench on purpose against VMI with only four reserves (Draper, Summers, Jack Medale and Jinwoo Kim) seeing action for most of the game. The 13th-year coach said it may be a while before he settles on a regular rotation.
“It’s still a work in progress because we haven’t had a whole lot of consistency,” DeChellis said. “I’m going to play the guys who play well in practice. I think we’ve got good young players, but they don’t know what they’re doing yet. When these freshmen and sophomores figure it out I think we have a chance.”
Fisher and MacDonald combined for 15 points on 7-for-10 field goal shooting to help Navy take a 31-20 halftime lead. The Midshipmen, who led by as much as 16 points in the first half, were powered by a 16-4.
Aggressive defense fueled the crucial stretch with VMI making just 1 of 14 field goals during a nearly eight-minute stretch. The Keydets shot just 8-for-24 (33%) and committed 14 turnovers in the first half.
The Midshipmen took full advantage of the sloppy ball-handling by the visitors, scoring 15 points off turnovers.
Navy maintained the defensive pressure to start the second half and quickly delivered the knockout blow. Draper started the second half and was very active on both ends of the floor as the Mids opened with a 16-5 run to take its largest lead of 22 points (47-25) at the 12:22 mark.
Draper sparked the second half onslaught with a steal and layup and scored seven points during the decisive run.
The Midshipmen continued to pull away with Draper delivering the exclamation point by driving the baseline and throwing down a vicious one-hand dunk to make it 62-37 with just under five minutes left.
Coppin State at Navy
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