Coppin State's chance for atonement is at hand.
Beginning in tomorrow's quarterfinals at the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, Coppin State will try to reverse its costliest misstep since the Eagles took off under coach Fang Mitchell in the late 1980s.
The Eagles (18-8) have waited a year to bury the past at Morgan State. There, a great season came undone against the host Bears, who became the first No. 8 seed in MEAC tournament history to beat a top seed by stunning Coppin State, 61-60. In 40 minutes, four months of work, a 16-game winning streak and an NCAA tournament berth went down the drain for the Eagles.
"That loss really hurt us. I thought about it all last summer," said senior guard Sidney Goodman, who went 0-for-8 from the field that day, just after being named to the All-MEAC first team.
"It seems like it's been a lifetime [of waiting to make up for the loss]," added senior forward Stephen Stewart, who accepted his second straight MEAC Player of the Year award last night. "We've got to clear our heads and get ready for a new season. We have to forget about what happened last year and do the things that made us successful this season."
All that stands between Coppin State and its third trip to the NCAA tournament during the 1990s is this weekend. The Eagles open tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. at Morgan's Hill Field House against the winner of tonight's Delaware State-Florida A&M game.
The Eagles appear ready to take care of the tournament business they left unfinished last year. They have won 15 straight games, making their 3-8 start -- thanks to the toughest nonconference schedule Mitchell has ever devised -- a distant memory.
They are playing the type of grinding defense that has set them apart from the rest of the MEAC for several years. Coppin State is giving up just 60 points a game to league teams, easily tops in the conference.
The Eagles also are led by a group of seniors that is unmatched in the league. Stewart, Goodman, guard Keith Carmichael, center Michael Thomas and forward Tariq Saunders have played integral roles in Coppin State's 47-1 regular-season MEAC record over the past three seasons.
Stewart is the anchor on the blocks, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound power forward who leads the team in scoring and rebounding and gets to the free-throw line more than anyone in the conference. Goodman, a first-team All-MEAC selection again this year and the team's second-leading scorer, has played point guard and off-guard equally well.
Thomas is tough around the basket and a good shot-blocker. Carmichael is the team's three-point artist. He averages more than three threes a game. Saunders, back after sitting out last season for disciplinary reasons, has become the force on the boards that he was two years ago.
"I know a lot of people in our conference won't be sorry to say goodbye to them, but it's going to be very disheartening for me to see them go," Mitchell said. "They have represented the school and the conference so well."
They also recovered impressively from an early-season stretch when they played 12 of their first 13 games on the road, in places like Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and LSU. That stretch included a conference-opening loss at North Carolina A&T, Coppin State's first regular-season defeat in the MEAC in 33 games.
That loss sent out two signals. The league was getting stronger, and the Eagles were no longer viewed as invincible. That sense of vulnerability, Mitchell says, has brought out the best in Coppin State's players and coaches.
Mitchell started experimenting with different lineups in December, and settled on a three-guard alignment in January by giving junior Allen Watson more starts at the point. Meanwhile, junior guard Kyle Locke and junior forward Mario McGriff settled into bench roles.
The result has been an eight-man rotation that gives the Eagles more depth than they had last year.
"We know the league is stronger, and we can lose to anybody," Stewart said. "But if we execute on offense and come out with the defensive intensity we've had lately, we're going to be tough to beat.
"If we lose, no matter what anyone says, we've had a good year, and we [seniors] have been the most successful group that has ever come through here."