NORFOLK, Va. -- When it counted most, Coppin State turned to its trademark -- tough defense -- and blew away Bethune-Cookman, 76-60, yesterday in the semifinals of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament at Echols Hall.
This Coppin team lacks the consistent efficiency of some past editions, but no one can fault its resilience. The Eagles shunned their customary slow start, ripping to a 15-2 lead, then managed to lollygag enough to allow the Wildcats to overtake them in the second half.
Top-seeded Coppin (20-8) finally clinched its fourth 20-win season in five years and reached its third straight MEAC final. It will play today at 4: 30 p.m. on ESPN2 against North Carolina A&T, which defeated defending champion South Carolina State, 54-49.
North Carolina A&T ended Coppin's NCAA-best, 42-game home-court winning streak in January.
The Eagles have not won this tournament, nor played in the NCAA tournament, since 1993, dropping the last two title games.
Bethune-Cookman (12-16) took a 48-47 lead with 9: 43 to play on a jumper by Reggie Bellamy, then was outscored 23-6 in the next eight minutes to be consigned to its 19th straight defeat against Coppin.
"They've got Division I bodies, men in there," Wildcats coach Tony Sheals said. "Once it became a physical game, a war in the trenches, we were overmatched."
The smallish Wildcats rely on three-point shots -- 565 for the season -- but the Eagles slammed the door on the perimeter in the late going and also stopped Bethune's transition game.
It turned into a halfcourt battle and Coppin's front line of Reggie Welch, Terquin Mott and particularly Kareem Lewis was doing just about what it wanted.
"We did our normal pause in the game," said Eagles coach Fang Mitchell, referring to the Bethune comeback. "We had our heads down a little bit when they took the lead. But stepping up the defense made it a problem for them to score."
Lewis, the junior backup to Mott, averaged 14 points against the Wildcats this season and yesterday he did not miss a shot while scoring exactly 14. He was one of five Eagles in double figures.
"I have a lot of confidence in Kareem Lewis," Mitchell said. "Mott was not in sync and putting Lewis in was not a problem. He was ready to play."
With Welch in foul trouble early, another key Eagle was reserve Fred Warrick, whose 10 first-half points included two three-pointers that forced the Wildcats out of their zone.
"He was on fire and with him hot, it took away the double-teaming and sagging that we like to do," Sheals said. "We had to go man-to-man and after a while that took some of the fight out of us, mentally and physically."
Mitchell didn't exactly agree that an overtime escape Wednesday against Maryland-Eastern Shore delivered a wake-up call to his team.
"I don't want to take anything away from UMES," he said. "But I think it made us realize nothing is going to be easy. You have to stop people and rebound no matter who you play."
The victory was Coppin's 16th in the past 17 games and came despite a spectacular 75-foot desperation shot by Richard Leonard that swished to beat the halftime buzzer.
"That gave us momentum into the second half," Sheals said.
The carry-over continued for a while, then Coppin's muscle took over. Or was it the resilience? The Eagles will need both today.
Coppin State (20-8) vs. North Carolina A&T (15-12)
Site: Echols Hall, Norfolk, Va.
Time: 4:30 p.m. today
Pub Date: 3/08/97