Welch helps Eagles step up 'Mr. Clutch' needed as Mott sprains ankle

March 14, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

PITTSBURGH -- It was by chance four years ago that Reggie Welch, while playing at Cleveland State, was flipping through the television channels and came upon a conference title game featuring Coppin State.

Welch, a native of South Jersey, was close friends with most of the Coppin players and was a bit envious as he watched the Eagles crush Delaware State to earn a trip to the NCAA tournament.

"As I saw my boys jumping around and celebrating, I was in my hotel room jumping around," Welch recalled. "I admired them. I admired the way they played. I even admired their uniforms. And all I could think about was how good it must have felt to do what they just did, to get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament."

It took two gut-wrenching free throws by Welch in the closing seconds of last Saturday's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title game that forced overtime, and gave the senior swingman a chance to even realize his dream to play in an NCAA game. And that dream will be fulfilled this afternoon at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena when 15th-seeded Coppin State faces second-seeded South Carolina in an opening-round NCAA tournament game.

Welch's role as an inside presence for the Eagles will increase even more today if senior center Terquin Mott cannot play or is severely hampered by a sprained ankle suffered during yesterday's workouts.

"No team is unbeatable," said Welch, reiterating the "we're not just glad to be here" tone of the team. "We're a small school, but we have players who can play at any Division I school in the nation. A lot of schools wouldn't want to play us, and that's smart."

Regardless of what happens with the Eagles today, Welch will always be remembered in school history as "Mr. Clutch." For a small school that has pretty much no shot at an at-large NCAA bid, what Welch did by hitting two free throws was equivalent to the so-called "$8 million kick" in college football. It's enough to make a player nervous.

Not Welch.

"The night before I saw Juwan Howard miss a free throw that could have won a game, and I didn't want that to be me," said Welch, who transferred to Coppin two years ago, turning down schools such as Michigan State in the process. "I wasn't nervous, actually I was angry that we let [North Caroline A&T] back in the game. I knew if I missed one, we were going home. And I wasn't ready to go home."

Said Eagles coach Fang Mitchell: "I was happy it was Reggie on the line. He's a money player and he's a guy who wants the ball at key times, when a lot of guys don't want the ball."

Welch attributes his mental and physical toughness from growing up in Camden, N.J., easily one of the toughest cities. He grew up with a love for football, and his well-defined 6-foot-6, 220-pound frame could easily be pictured as a tight end.

"He loved football so much, but on the field near where we lived the grass was so high that he couldn't play," said Harry Welch, Reggie's older brother who played at famed Camden High School. "So he'd try to play basketball with us, but the guys said he was too small so they wouldn't let him.

"One day we actually needed somebody, and asked him to play. And from that day on, I knew he was something special. He wouldn't let anybody intimidate him, even the older guys. He was so good, he gave up football."

In addition to helping mold his younger brother into a solid basketball player, Harry was also able to help shield Reggie from the lure of the streets.

"He did what every brother should do for an adolescent growing up -- he didn't drink or do drugs and he made sure I didn't do it either," said Welch, a criminal justice major. "I remember one time I was out with my friends, and they were passing around marijuana. Soon as I was about to reach for it, my brother came from nowhere and slammed me in the chest.

"He said if he ever saw me do that, he would embarrass me, and he really kept me out of trouble. I didn't grow up with a father, so Harry was like my father, he was my hero and he gave me the inspiration to go out and play hard. Guys on the playground would scream out the names of the guys they wanted to be like, like Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan. I'd be on the playground screaming my brother's name."

These days the older brother is screaming Reggie's name. Harry said he has watched the tape of last week's game countless times this week, especially replaying the two clutch free throws.

"Reggie used to be on the courts practicing free throws in the dark," Harry said. "When the lights went off, people went home. And he'd still be out there."

And maybe that extra work in the dark helped pay off for Welch, who has yet to watch a tape of last week's game.

"I saw the footage on the news and people have told me about it, but I haven't even watched it," Welch said. "I'm sure when this is all over, I'll sit back and watch it. But for right now I am a bit preoccupied on what we have to do. That's over."

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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