Coppin seizes MEAC crown Eagles beat N.C. A&T in overtime, 81-74, to gain NCAA berth

March 09, 1997|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

NORFOLK, Va. -- The current Coppin State basketball team has exasperated and confused him with its letdowns and surprised him with its resurgences.

Coach Fang Mitchell got a little bit of both of those qualities yesterday at Echols Hall, but the final feeling was jubilation after the Eagles returned to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference throne room.

In an intense, physical matchup with North Carolina A&T -- the team that ended Coppin's 42-game home-court winning streak two months ago -- the Eagles captured the MEAC for the first time since 1993 with a hard-earned, 81-74 overtime victory.

"It was a tremendous game," Mitchell said after earning his third NCAA tournament berth in seven seasons. "When it got down to it, our kids did want to win. Some people stepped up in the second half and we really needed that in this one.

"I'm happy we're going to the big dance. These players have been through a lot this year and this is a good reward for them."

Coppin (21-8) faced elimination in regulation when the Aggies had the ball with 16 seconds left and the score tied at 65.

But a defensive adjustment by the Eagles cut off the option North Carolina A&T wanted to use and Jonathan Richmond had to loft a three-point attempt as the clock expired. It was not close.

"We didn't get the ball into Dexter Cannon's hands. He had carried us down the stretch," Aggies coach Roy Thomas said. "You've got to take the ball to the basket in that situation and we never got the chance."

Coppin had faked the man-to-man press it had used most of the game and fell off into a zone, confusing the A&T players.

"They had been beating us with dribble penetration," Mitchell said. "The idea of the zone was to keep their players in front of us. If they beat us, it was going to be with a jump shot."

The Eagles trailed only once in the overtime (69-68) before three straight baskets by Reggie Welch, the last two on huge plays, put them in command.

After regaining the lead with a layup, Welch turned a steal into a breakaway slam. Aggie Derick Powell responded with two free throws to cut the margin to one again before Welch outdid himself.

He was undercut by Kimani Stewart and slammed to the floor, but got the ball aloft and somehow scored with 42 seconds left. He also made the free throw -- Coppin went 8-for-8 from the line in overtime -- for a 75-71 lead.

A&T never scored again until the game was out of reach.

"It was a pass from Terq [tournament MVP Terquin Mott] and you never know what he's going to do," Welch said of the key basket. "I just kept my hands up and my eyes on the hole. You have to make the tough catch and put it in if you can."

A&T's Thomas said if that pass had been mishandled or gone out of bounds to change possession, the result might have been different.

The Eagles got off to their trademark slow start, falling behind 11-4, but All-MEAC Antoine Brockington, whose shooting had been below par in the tournament, then found his stroke.

His 11 first-half points turned the game into a nip-and tuck affair and Coppin eased ahead at the break, 27-25, on a Welch basket off a Mott assist.

What followed was a sequence of spurts with Coppin pulling in front by nine, the Aggies rallying to tie at 42, Coppin surging ahead by 10 on a three-pointer by Fred Warrick, then A&T launching a 12-2 run to pull even again.

The tallest player in the game, 6-10 center Shenord Knowlin, kept making free throws and Cannon kept driving through the heart of the Eagles' defense to fuel the Aggies. "This team showed a lot of heart. When adversity set in, they rose time and again," said Thomas. "Knowlin might have played the game of his life."

Derick Powell (16 points, nine rebounds) gave the Aggies a 65-63 lead before Welch -- who probably deserved the MVP award -- grabbed a crucial rebound of Danny Singletary's miss, was fouled and sank two free throws to tie at 65.

North Carolina A&T's abortive try at a final basket in regulation followed.

"We kept our composure and didn't get into the hype of television or the crowd," said Welch. "In overtime, we kind of took over."

Welch finished with 23 points, Mott had 21 and nine rebounds, and Brockington contributed 17 points, two steals and two assists.

"I think I'm supposed to hit every shot," said Brockington. "When things don't go right, I tend to stop playing defense. And you don't want to do that on this team."

It was the second overtime game of the tourney for Coppin and sixth of the season (4-2 record). "I think it was good for us that we had been in so many," said Mitchell.

So, a school that had lost the previous two MEAC finals is now on its way into the NCAAs with a seven-game winning streak and 17 victories in the last 18 starts.

Mitchell, who also led Coppin to NCAA berths in 1990 and '93, expects to be a No. 16 seed and draw one of the nation's top five teams for a first-round opponent.

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