Larry Stewart is ready to make it two straight Player of the Year awards in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Reggie Isaac's name can be found among the nation's top scorers, but the Coppin State basketball team won't go far without a healthy Larry Yarbray.
A 6-foot junior, Yarbray was a steadying influence at point guard a year ago, when the Eagles won the MEAC and made the NCAA tournament for the first time. His ability to dictate the flow of a game was one reason coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell set up a killer non-conference schedule this season, and his absence for five weeks in the preseason due to a sprained ankle explains in part why Coppin State is still two games on the wrong side of .500.
The Eagles improved to 6-8 overall, 2-1 in the MEAC with an 87-63 dismantling of Maryland-Eastern Shore at the Coppin Center last night. Stewart had 19 of his 27 points in the second half and 15 rebounds, both game-high totals. Isaac had 21, including three straight three-pointers at the end of the half that made up for Stewart's early foul trouble.
In winning at home for the 18th straight time, the Eagles shot 47.5 percent from the field, but they won this one at the defensive end, as UMES turned it over 23 times and shot just 41.7 percent. Coppin State isn't cohesive at the offensive end, and Mitchell and Yarbray aren't surprised.
"There were a ton of mistakes out there," said Mitchell. "I don't think we would be in this situation if Yarbray and [senior center] Larry McCollum had been with us all year. McCollum missed all of the preseason with the hand injury, and Yarbray came off the bench for our opener after what amounted to two days practice.
"He hasn't been the Larry Yarbray we're accustomed to seeing."
An offseason of conditioning in his hometown of Chester, Pa., was negated Oct. 16, the second day of practice, when Yarbray suffered the severe ankle sprain. He missed most of the next five weeks, but dressed for the opener at Tulsa and ended up playing 30 minutes.
"I didn't feel completely healthy until the Clemson game [a one-point loss Dec. 20]," Yarbray said. "Not being out there for preseason practice really set me back."
Last night Yarbray had six assists but only three points on 1-for-7 shooting. He's averaging 5.2 assists and 5.6 points on 33.3 percent shooting. Last season he averaged 7.3 assists and 8.9 points -- on 47.7 shooting -- en route to earning second-team All-MEAC honors.
"The shooting slump will take care of itself," said Yarbray, who racked up 381 assists in his first two seasons. "The thing I've got to worry about is getting all of our young players into the game, dTC making sure everyone's in the right place at the right time."
Yarbray said that Stewart and Isaac, the marquee seniors, are supposed to get at least 30 shots a game between them, and that's exactly what they got last night. After that, it's a delicate task spreading the ball around. No other Coppin State player was in double figures.
UMES got 13 points from freshman guard Shawn Johnson and 12 apiece from seniors Robert Spear and Jose Sandoval, as the Hawks slipped to 3-10 overall (1-3 MEAC).
Their slim chances were lessened when leading scorer Darrick Purnell, a sophomore forward from Carver High, didn't go back to Princess Anne on the team bus after Saturday's win at Morgan State. The MEAC Rookie of the Week stayed in Baltimore over the weekend, and first-year coach Bob Hopkins didn't let Purnell dress last night.
"Darrick's going to be all right," Hopkins said. "He just needs to learn some self-discipline."