Coppin State hopes ride smoother in tournament Eagles aim for MEAC title after rocky regular season

March 05, 1997|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

NORFOLK, Va. -- The regular season was a stomach-churning, roller-coaster ride for Coppin State.

To wit:

Seven losses in the first 11 games, including two in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference that the Eagles have almost totally dominated since 1989-90.

A shocking early conference defeat to North Carolina A&T that ended the nation's longest Division I home-court winning streak at 42 games.

Suspensions of the two senior leaders, Terquin Mott (twice) and Reggie Welch.

Injuries that deprived the team of Welch (broken hand) and Mott (back) and forced Antoine Brockington to play through pain.

A rash of slow starts in games that forced them to play catch-up basketball.

But the Eagles survived it all and today they enter quarterfinals of the MEAC tournament as the regular-season champions again. For the fifth straight time and seventh in eight years.

"It was a very tough year, a lot of ups and downs," said coach Fang Mitchell, whose club finished 18-8 overall and 15-3 in the MEAC. "I didn't expect it to be as tough as it was. But through all the adversity, the kids came through and did what they were supposed to. I applaud them."

Now comes the acid test, the quest for the tournament title and resultant NCAA berth that has eluded Coppin since 1993. Will this time be different?

"I think it's a situation where every three or four years Coppin has won it," said Welch. "It's about time to bring it back home.

"I believe we're more loose this year because this team has been through everything. Last year, we weren't real sure of ourselves and South Carolina State took advantage. We know what our mistakes were, and this time we're more focused."

A laudable approach, to be sure, but Mitchell is taking a more cautious position.

"This team is not playing as well as I would want going into the tournament," said the coach, despite 14 victories in the last 15 games. "I've seen a number of my teams playing better. But, these kids have fooled me a number of times this season."

Expectations are always lofty for a program that has won at least 14 conference games six times since 1989-90. Nothing short of the league championship is sufficient.

"A lot of people are calling us the Buffalo Bills of the '90s," said Welch.

"Our problem is that if we only win the regular season, it's bad," added Mitchell. "Losing in the tournament is highlighted in the MEAC because there is nowhere to go for anyone but the champion."

And the situation is double jeopardy because the rest of the MEAC can't wait to take its shot at Coppin.

"We're the big game for every team," said Mitchell. "So, if they catch us in one of those modes where we're thinking we're better, we're in trouble. And getting these kids to play each and every game with the same intensity has been difficult."

Still, the 1996-97 edition has been a resilient group, rising to challenges when it was necessary, enduring through 10 changes in the starting lineup and pushing Mitchell over the 200-victory plateau.

"It's been hard, and there were times we thought Fang was the bad guy," Welch said of the tribulations. "We thought he was jeopardizing our reputations, but we didn't realize what was going on. He's preparing us for the rules and regulations of the real world.

"I'll tell you, even if Michael Jordan were here, with all the ability he has, Fang would bench him if he stepped out of line."

Welch said Mitchell's intensity on the sidelines "is like a wild animal's. Sweat is pouring off him. That's what we need as players."

The standard line is that if the Eagles do what they are capable of, there will be a MEAC championship banner back at the Coppin Center -- no matter who the opponent.

Still, Welch would relish another title-game showdown with second seed South Carolina State. Being in separate brackets, the teams can't meet until the final.

"I tip my hat to them," he said. "They were very determined, but they didn't have anything bad to say. I don't dislike them; I admire the way they beat us. I just can't get them off my mind."

First, the Eagles will have to dispose of Maryland-Eastern Shore and the survivor of the Bethune Cookman-Florida A&M game.

"This is a year that when you look at the MEAC, it doesn't make any difference who you play," said Mitchell. "They're all tough. The biggest game becomes the next one."

But after their topsy-turvy regular season, the Eagles may find the tournament a welcome relief.

MEAC tournament

First round

Monday

UMES 76, Howard 70

Quarterfinals

At Norfolk, Va.

Today

Coppin State vs. UMES, 3 p.m.

S.C. State vs. Del. State, 8 p.m.

Tomorrow

N.C. A&T vs. Morgan, 3 p.m.

B.-Cookman vs. Fla. A&M, 8 p.m.

Semifinals

Friday

CSU-UMES winner vs. BC-FAM winner, 5: 30 p.m.

UNCA-MSU winner vs. S.C. St.-DSU winner, 8 p.m.

Championship

Saturday

Semifinal winners, 4: 30 p.m.

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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