CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- Entering the sixth and final day of play in the Armed Forces Basketball Championship Aug. 30, the All-Marine team had no assurance that it would even be able to play for the gold medal. By the end of the day, they were champions.
Three of the four teams-the Marines, Air Force, and Army-last day of play, all with identical three and two records. However, because the Air Force had defeated the Marines in both games in which the two teams faced each other, they ultimately held the tiebreaker over the Marines. So, in order for the Marines to have any chance of winning the tournament, which was held at Camp Lejeune's Goettge Memorial Field House, it would require some help from Navy, a team that had been in every game it had played but had only managed to win one of its first five games. Navy squared off against Air Force in the early game, and carried the Marine team's fate with them.
"We weren't really watching the (Air Force/Navy) game," said All-Marine forward Staff Sgt. DeRoy Flowers. "(Cpl. Jelani) Nix, our captain, brought us to the locker room and told us that no matter what we just had to focus on beating Army. We couldn't control what happened in that first game."
Marine coach Master Gunnery Sgt. Antonio Robinson, from Marine Corps Base, Quantico, Va., claimed that he didn't even arrive at the gym until 11 a.m., at which time the Air Force-Navy game had already begun the second half. Robinson could not have liked what he saw upon his arrival, considering Air Force held a 34-26 halftime lead. Whether Robinson and his players were watching the game or not, all any of them could really do was hope for a Navy victory.
As the second half progressed, the Marines' wishes were beginning to come true. With massive forward SHSH Herman Myers' six straight points to open the half setting the tone, Navy played with plenty of energy and emotion in the final 20 minutes despite the fact that they had little more to play for than pride. Diminutive point guard Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Rush came off the bench to provide a spark for Navy, burying two three-pointers within a three minute span to cut Air Force's lead to three with 9:35 to play. Two minutes later guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Eugene Smith nailed a trey of his own, and suddenly Navy led 52-50.
Air Force, which plays a suffocating zone defense that enabled them to slow more athletic, up-tempo teams such as Army and the Marines to half-court games, was still managing to hold Navy's offense relatively in check. However, Air Force was forced to play the second half without one of its best and most athletic players in Airman 1st Class Kendric Green, who had to leave for the hospital in the closing minutes of the first half after suffering a large gash above his left eye from hitting the floor face first following a vicious dunk. Without Green, whose nine first-half points ended up being the team high, Air Force struggled to put the ball in the basket. Navy had all the momentum, and there was little Air Force could do offensively to answer them. After a turnaround jumper by Air Force forward Staff Sgt. Earl Mitchell knotted the score at 57 with just 2:30 to play in the game, Navy scored four consecutive points on two free throws from center Petty Officer 3rd Class Marcellus Anderson and a lay-up by forward Petty Officer 1st Class Mel Pulliam. Though they only converted seven of 26 free throws for the entire game, Navy seemed to hit all of them in the final minute, thus sealing the 67-62 victory, eliminating Air Force from any shot at the gold medal, and making the tournament's final game between Army and the Marines a championship game.
The Marines were energized by the knowledge that they would now be playing for the gold. "That was our motivation right there," said Flowers. "We were either going to be playing for the gold or playing for third place, so when Navy won it turned us on. We had a reprieve, and we knew that because this was our house we couldn't lose."
The team's new found energy was evident on the court as the game began. Riding a 13-0 run midway through the first half, the Marines raced to a 36-23 lead over Army at the half, much to the delight of the partisan Goettge crowd. Army, on the other hand, appeared a step slower than the Marines, which could possibly have been attributed to the fact that they knew all along they would have an opportunity to win gold regardless of whether Air Force had won or lost. Only the hot three-point shooting of marksman 2nd Lt. Chris Spatola kept Army within relative striking distance.
After a mini Army run to start the second half, the Marines again burst out to a big lead. While their brilliant guard trio of Cpl. DuShaun Fields, Staff Sgt. Billy Shanks, and Cpl. Chivas Whipple had accounted for much of the offense in the first half, the Marines received an inspired performance from lanky six-foot-nine center Sgt. Stanley Billings, Jr. off the bench in the second half. Billings, in his third year with the All-Marine team, was an offensive and defensive catalyst, scoring six points and adding several huge blocks in a four-minute stretch to help the Marine lead swell to 15. With their star forward Nix having to sit for much of the second half with foul trouble, Billings stepped up at just the right time.
"Basically, I just tried to bail my teammates out," said Billings, who scored all eight of his points in the second half. "We're Marines; we look out for each other and we pick each other up."
A smile came over coach Robinson's face when asked about his big man: "Billings came alive when we really needed him. He and Flowers were huge off the bench with Nix being out."
Flowers, the next tallest member of the team after Billings, also came up big in spelling Nix. His long arms and tough defense helped stymie Army's all-tournament center 1st Lt. Leon Watson, who appeared frustrated throughout the game as nearly all his shots were highly contested.
Despite their offensive struggles, Army mounted a comeback. Thanks to a barrage of three-pointers by Spatola, Spc. Eric Draper, and all-tournament guard Sgt. Craig J. Marcelin, Army clawed to within five points with five minute still to play. Then, Army received some unexpected help when Billings was called for a technical foul for disputing a questionable traveling call. Army made their free throws, and a lay-up by forward Spc. Robert Moore tied it at 63 with 3:20 to play. Suddenly, despite dominating for most of the game, the Marines found their championship hopes in extreme jeopardy. After the Marines failed to score, Army had the ball with a chance to take their first lead since it was 8-5 in the opening minutes. However, a moving pick was called as Marcelin was attempting to shake his defender, and the Marines got the ball back. From there, the Marines' savvy guards took over.
"(The guard) played outstanding ball throughout the tournament," said Robinson. "It helps when you have steady guard play like that, guys that you can rely on down the stretch." Fields and Whipple utilized their quickness to draw fouls on the overmatched Army defenders. Once at the line, the star guards did their part to ensure the victory. On the other end of the floor, Flowers again came up with several defensive gems, stealing an interior pass and coming up with a loose ball. Up 67-63 with under a minute to play, Fields came up with the ball after another strong defensive stand, and was immediately fouled. The Marines, along with most of the onlookers in Goettge Memorial Field House, began to celebrate their Armed Forces championship.
Marine players embraced on the sidelines while the final seconds ticked off on their gritty 70-63 win, revealing the tightness and cohesion that is so vital when pursuing a championship. "This team had so much togetherness," said a proud coach Robinson after the game. "They had so much faith and confidence in each other, confidence in every one who came off the bench, which is why we were able to go so deep and use so many guys. They just worked so hard."
Billings, perhaps the prime example of how Robinson's confidence in his bench paid huge dividends, added, "We have a tight bond; we're like family. The team I was on three years ago was tight, but this group was even tighter. We picked each other up through adversity."
All teams encounter adversity at one point or another, and it's how a team responds that can make it a champion. Perhaps the greatest adversity the Marines encountered was enduring the excruciating process of waiting while another team helped determine their fate. With the Air Force loss, the Marines responded as any true champion would, viewing the opportunity to play for the gold granted them by Navy as one they simply could not squander.
Twelve players were selected from all four squads to compete for the Armed Forces team on the international stage, beginning with the SHAPE International Basketball Tournament in Belgium this November. The players selected were: Fields and Nix from the Marine team; Sgt. Shawn Grace, Marcelin, Spatola, and Watson from the Army; 1st Lt. Isreal Figueroa, Mitchell, 1st Lt. Corey Nelson, and 1st Lt. Tyron Wright from the Air Force; HNSM Michael Groves and Myers from the Navy. Robinson and his assistant Capt. James Jones will coach the team. The all-tournament team was made up of Fields, Groves, Marcelin, Nix, and Watson.