Even with two losses, state hopes on upswing

March 13, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

It's a good thing Maryland-Eastern Shore and Morgan State won't meet for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title. Otherwise, the NCAA might have put the entire state under investigation.

Navy and Loyola are going to the Big Dance, Maryland is awaiting an invitation and UMES and Morgan could have made it an all-Maryland MEAC final tonight at the Baltimore Arena.

Instead, North Carolina A&T will meet South Carolina State for the No. 16 seed awaiting the MEAC champion. Good thing UMES lost to A&T, 76-73. Good thing Morgan lost to S.C. State, 69-63.

Surely, the NCAA was getting curious.

Coppin State was the only Maryland school to play in last year's tournament. But as of yesterday, the state was looking at four possible bids.

Amazing, considering that Coppin and Towson State -- the two most successful programs in Maryland the last five years -- were out of the picture.

Four bids! Maryland could have matched North Carolina, the college-basketball paradise where Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest are locks, and A&T is in the MEAC final.

Four bids! It was looking good, but UMES missed four three-point chances to tie in the closing seconds, and Morgan fell short after pulling within two points with 22 seconds left.

Four bids!

It begs the question:

How do you explain Coppin?

A year ago, after top-seeded Towson lost to No. 8 Winthrop in the Big South tournament, we posed the question, "Would Fang Mitchell lose such a game?"

Towson blew it again as the Big South's top seed this year, falling to eventual champion Liberty. But somewhere, Terry Truax is smiling.

Morgan 61, Coppin 60.

Just imagine if the Bears had won the MEAC. They would have been 10-20 entering the NCAAs -- with 40 percent of their wins coming in the MEAC tournament.

Few care enough about the MEAC to notice, but Morgan's triumph amounted to one of the biggest shockers of this upset-filled college-basketball season.

Yes, Morgan was playing on its home court, but the computer power ratings in Wednesday's USA Today had Coppin at No. 91 and Morgan at No. 285 -- out of 301 Division I schools.

By that measure, Morgan's victory was the equivalent of Navy beating Massachusetts -- and that's just going by the computer, without factoring in the human element.

Morgan was playing for the second time in 18 hours. Coppin had the nation's longest winning streak at 16 games, a 35-game streak in the MEAC and a 10-game streak over Morgan.

Go figure.

Coppin also was upset as the top seed in 1991, when Larry Stewart and Reggie Isaac were seniors. But this was far, far worse.

"Our kids were happier Coppin State got beat than after the game we had won [later Friday]," UMES coach Rob Chavez said. "Everyone could see the light at the end of the tunnel."

As the second seed, UMES became the new tournament favorite, but it was too greedy to expect the Hawks to earn an NCAA bid, too much to ask.

We're talking about "You Miss," a school working on its sixth coach since 1984, a school that won only 51 games in the 10 seasons before Chavez became coach.

Chavez turned a 3-25 team into a presentable 12-15 outfit in his first season, and UMES finished 16-12 this season for its first winning record since 1981.

Thus, it was fitting that Chavez again started at the bottom yesterday, with UMES falling behind 10-0, 16-2 and 26-7.

And it was fitting that his team turned the game into a thriller -- even though A&T shot 66 percent and out-rebounded UMES 31-17.

The game was so breathtaking, A&T coach Jeff Capel said, "I can't wait to watch the film." Obviously, the loss was crushing for UMES. But it also was a measure of how far the program has come.

The good news is, Chavez will lose only two seniors from this team, and his recruiting class for next season already includes Dunbar High's 6-foot-8 forward, Alexander Mobley.

Chavez and Loyola's Skip Prosser are proof -- this is still a coach's sport. In the less prominent conferences, the NCAA bid almost always goes to the tournament champion, making wild turnarounds even more possible.

Last year, Morgan had five players foul out in its MEAC tournament loss to Florida A&M. This year, it upset Coppin for one of the biggest wins in school history.

Last year, Loyola scored only 12 points in the first half of its first-round loss to Manhattan in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament. This year, it beat Manhattan in the MAAC final.

March Madness reigns.

Yes, even in Maryland.

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