Coppin State tasted the first fruits of its ambitious early-season road schedule last night. North Carolina A&T tasted cinders from the hot rod that rumbled past the Aggies.
"It's just good to be home," crooned Coppin coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell after renewing acquaintances with an 87-75 victory that was the Eagles' 16th in a row at the Coppin Center.
The Eagles hadn't played at home, sweet home in 25 days and six games. They had played only two home games in the first month and a half. And they were somewhat worse for the wear, winning only two of 10 games outside Baltimore's city limits.
But Mitchell isn't complaining about the rough ride in December. It'll make for smoother sailing come March if the master plan works out.
"I enjoyed every bit of it," he said of the early itinerary, "playing these teams that are the best in the country. When it takes [officials'] calls to win games, I feel on a neutral court we'll have a good chance to win.
"It was good for us, playing in El Paso and New Mexico State, where they just cuss at you and scream at you. The only bad thing is, our fans don't recognize who we've been playing."
For the record, the Eagles lost to New Mexico State by 10, Texas-El Paso by 15, Oklahoma by 19, and New Orleans by seven.
Not all of those teams fit under the heading of "Best in the country," but they do represent some of the country's toughest places to play. So what did Coppin gain from its road experience of the past month?
"Maturity," said senior guard Reggie Isaac. "We're a young team. It'll probably help us when we go back [on the road] later."
What helped last night was Coppin's pressing man-to-man defense. After surviving a three-point, first-half barrage by A&T, the Eagles turned up the heat early in the second half. Behind Isaac and Larry Stewart, they used a 23-6 run to turn a three-point lead into a 20-point cushion. A&T never recovered.
Isaac, shooting 12-for-17, matched his season high of 30 points as Coppin (5-8 overall) evened its Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference record at 1-1. Stewart tossed in 18 points with 10 rebounds, and twice slam-dunked lob passes from Larry Yarbray during Coppin's big run. Yarbray finished with 13 assists and seven points and Larry McCollum had 10 points with 10 rebounds.
Coppin's seventh straight win over A&T was considerably easier than the four- and five-point wins they registered over the Aggies late last season.
"We're running this year and pressing," said Stewart, who hit eight of 10 shots from the field. "That's to our advantage. We didn't run last year."
The upscale tempo and familiar baskets helped produce 58 percent shooting by the Eagles, who are enjoying their longest home winning streak since stepping up to Division I. Their defense inspired 19 A&T turnovers. And after hitting eight of 12 three-point shots in the first half, the Aggies clanked in only two of 19 after intermission.
"We call it the Zoo," Stewart said of Coppin Center. "It's wild in here. Anything can happen. They shot well in the first half, but you saw what happened in the second."
For Coppin, it was great to be home at last.