One last shot for Coppin's Watson Senior needs MEAC crown to land elusive NCAA berth

February 29, 1996|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- With the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament beginning today, Coppin State senior Allen Watson can't help but think back to 1993. That's when, as a fan, he got caught up in the euphoria when the Eagles defeated Delaware State to earn the school's second berth in the NCAA tournament.

"It was almost if I was playing in that game," said the soft-spoken Watson, who didn't play because he didn't qualify academically as a freshman. "Sitting near the bench, hearing the crowd when they pulled the starters out at the end, it was unreal.

"One of the reasons why I came here was to get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament," Watson said. "And with the guys we had coming back, it was just a matter of how many times we would go."

How many times for Watson? So far, none. Before this season, the Eagles had dominated the league during the regular season with a combined 31-1 record over two seasons, only to get knocked out of the MEAC tournament -- and lose a chance at the league's automatic NCAA berth -- both times. So when Coppin begins its quest for redemption in an opening-round game against Howard today (1:30 p.m.), Watson is hoping to avoid becoming the first Coppin player since 1988 to play at least three years and not play in an NCAA tournament game.

"This is it for me. This is my last year and I want to go to the NCAAs badly," said Watson, whose nickname is "Smooth". "Everybody's been there already. The guys on this team, if they don't get there, they'll get another chance. I don't get another chance. Kyle Locke [the only other senior, who played in the 1993 tournament] keeps telling me that I have to get that feeling."

And whether that happens could come down to the calming effect the 5-foot-10 Watson has on the Eagles -- a team on which he and Locke are the only returnees from a year ago. This is Watson's first season as a full-time starter -- he started 13 games last season -- and he endured a tough stretch when the Eagles opened the season with a 3-7 record.

"At the beginning of the year I think he took my criticism personally," coach Fang Mitchell said. "He had problems with turnovers and his passing and we have two assistant coaches [Derek Brown and Nate Blackwell] who were all-state point guards in high school, so he was going to get criticized."

But Watson, who idolized Kenny Anderson when he was growing up in East Orange, N.J., settled down. Even with his early problems, he had earned the respect of his coaches and teammates.

"I wouldn't trade my point guard for anyone in the world," said Coppin junior forward Terquin Mott, the MEAC Player of the Year. "Nothing fancy with him. He's a leader by example. Even if he wanted to yell at us, he wouldn't know how to."

But Mitchell said he has noticed, with the tournament approaching, that Watson has become more vocal.

"He was soft-spoken at the start of the year, but at the end he called a spade a spade, and when the guys were acting up he spoke on it," Mitchell said. "That's the kind of leadership I wanted."

Now Watson will find out if his leadership can help carry Coppin into the NCAA tournament with a victory in Saturday's MEAC championship.

"I can see myself finishing the game, the horn going off and putting my hands in the air as I walk off the court," Watson said. "It's like a dream come true. I'm going to go out and play my heart out, and I'm hoping everyone else does, too. It's got to happen now for me. I don't have another chance."

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