WASHINGTON -- When the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament comes around in March and Coppin State finds itself in a tough first-round game, the team will look back to two games this past week against Howard and wonder "what if."
The second of the two games was played last night at Howard's Burr Gymnasium, with the Bison making the clutch plays down the stretch for a 69-64 win in a battle of first-place teams.
Coppin (12-7, 6-3) lost for just the second time in its last nine games, with both losses coming to Howard. The Eagles dropped a full game in the MEAC behind Howard (9-11, 7-2), which started the day tied for first with Coppin and North Carolina A & T. The Aggies lost earlier in the day to Delaware State, 77-71.
"It's irrelevant whether it's for first place or against a fourth-place team because I play every game to win," Coppin coach Fang Mitchell said. "Today is a loss and a bad feeling regardless of whether it was a battle for first."
Trailing 66-61 after Howard guard Milan Brown converted a three-point play with 1 minute, 3 seconds left, the Eagles got to within two after Tariq Saunders hit a three-pointer with 49 seconds left. Howard turned the ball over on its next possession, but Coppin's James Mazyck missed a three-point attempt with 20 seconds left that would have given the Eagles the lead.
After Howard's Kelsey Sturdivant missed two free throws with 13 seconds left, Coppin had another chance to tie or take the lead, but Sidney Goodman missed a three-pointer with five seconds left. After a timeout, Howard inbounded the ball to halfcourt and guard Martin Huckaby hit a three-pointer just before the buzzer.
"I can't complain because we had a chance to win the game," Mitchell said. "We had decent shots, but the ball just didn't go down. They hit some big shots and we didn't. It's just part of the game."
It didn't help the Eagles that Coppin center Coleman Scott fouled out with 4:36 left. Scott scored 13 points, but was hampered with foul trouble after picking up his third just less than three minutes into the second half.
Saunders' 15 points led the Eagles, with Scott and Mazyck scoring 13 and 11 respectively. Julius McNeil scored 25 to lead the Bison.
The game was a rematch of last Monday's game at the Coppin Center, when a layup by McNeil just before the final buzzer gave the Bison a 66-64 win and ended Coppin's 22-game home winning streak against MEAC opponents. As was that game, this one, between two of the top teams in the league, was close throughout.
Coppin led, 39-37, at the half, but Howard took the lead in the opening minute of the second half after baskets by McNeil and Sturdivant made it 41-39.
The Eagles bounced back with a 7-0 run -- six by Mazyck -- to take their biggest lead, 46-41. After briefly losing the lead after two free throws by Howard guard Howard Holley made it 51-50, Coppin regained the advantage and led by three, 61-58, with 3:38 left.
But McNeil hit a three-pointer from the left corner to tie the score with 3:08 left. And Howard ended the game with an 8-3 run for the win.
Starting a lineup of two freshmen and three sophomores, Coppin turned the ball over five times on its first nine possessions in falling behind, 10-6. The Eagles were able to stay in the game behind the play of Scott, a 5.9 point-per-game scorer, who
scored six of his 11 first-half points that kept Coppin within two, 10-8, in the first seven minutes.
But Howard, behind a defense that is ranked third in the MEAC, had six players score during a 14-8 run that increased the lead to 24-16 with just less than eight minutes left and later held a 37-29 margin after two free throws by forward Ronald Cole that followed an intentional foul call on Darren Woods.