NIT breathes new life into Coppin season

March 12, 1991|By Jerry Bembry

They were stacked off to the side of the equipment room after Coppin State was eliminated in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament. Neatly folded and boxed, they were packed away until -- presumably -- the start of the 1991-92 basketball season.

But those Coppin uniforms were given new life yesterday, one day after the Eagles were offered a berth in the National Invitation Tournament. And for four seniors whose careers were thought to have ended on the floor of The Scope in Norfolk, Va., after a loss to Florida A&M 11 days ago, there is one more chance at redemption.

"I thought everything was over," said Eagles guard Reggie Isaac after practice yesterday. "I felt like my career wasn't complete without winning two MEAC titles. But now we have a second life. And we're real happy."

The goal at the outset of the season was a second straight appearance in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, but there were no complaints at the Coppin Center yesterday about the NIT.

Back together for the first time following what appeared to be a season-ending defeat March 1, the Eagles (19-10) worked hard to prepare for Thursday's game at Missouri Valley Conference runner-up Southwest Missouri State.

"There are 96 teams playing in tournaments and 200 sitting at home, so I'm a happy man," said Coppin coach Fang Mitchell, who has a shot at his second straight 20-win season. "There were five teams that won more than us that didn't get in. It just shows respect for our program. We've always played good teams on the road tough, and we've never dodged anyone."

The Eagles are no strangers to teams in the Missouri Valley Conference, which might explain the pairing against Southwest Missouri State. Coppin, playing without center Larry McCollum, lost at Tulsa, 84-79, in the second game of the season. Last year Coppin traveled to Creighton, which is in the NCAA tournament this year, where the Eagles sent shock waves through the MVC with a 66-60 win.

"We're well-known out there," Mitchell said. "We're getting ready to watch some tapes on them and prepare ourselves."

Southwest Missouri (21-11) ended its first season in the MVC with losses in three of its last five games. Still, the Bears made it to within one game of automatically qualifying for the NCAAs, losing, 68-52, to Creighton in the conference championship game.

Southwest Missouri split two games with MEAC teams this season. The Bears lost to North Carolina A&T, 55-52, in the championship game of the Pizza Hut Classic in Springfield, Mo., Dec. 8. Eleven days later, Southwest Missouri defeated Morgan State, 81-57.

"We've had enough experience with teams from the MEAC over the past couple of years to know a little bit about the brand of basketball they play over there, and I expect we'll have our hands full," Southwest Missouri coach Charlie Spoonhour said. "We're glad that we're still playing, and we're looking forward to this tournament. Our kids are anxious to get going again."

The only meeting between the schools was in the 1986-87 season, when the Bears overwhelmed the Eagles, 84-52, on their way to the first of four straight NCAA appearances. But that was in Mitchell's first season at Coppin and before the arrival of Isaac and Larry Stewart. The high-scoring seniors are eager for a better showing than in Coppin's loss in the MEAC tournament.

"I feel good. Everyone is hoping for a shot at redemption," Larry Stewart said. "Against FAMU we weren't ourselves and didn't shoot well. They wanted it more then we did. Now we have a second life. And we're looking forward to playing again."

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