Coppin isn't at a loss for respect

March 17, 1997|By John Eisenberg

PITTSBURGH -- They lost the game and found respect, which was all they ever wanted.

They lost the game, but a sellout crowd cheered them as if they were family and the basketball nation discovered them as a team of great substance and even greater heart.

For the coaches and players at Coppin State, who have yearned for so long for anyone to pay them even a little attention, it was an acceptable trade-off.

Their one-point loss to Texas in the second round of the NCAA tournament yesterday was almost unbearably painful, but that pain was more than offset by the approval and admiration they earned in a weekend they surely will remember forever.

"One half of me is feeling bad right now, but the other half is feeling so much joy," Coppin senior forward Reggie Welch said, "and I know that joy is going to override the sadness."

The pain was already subsiding within minutes of Texas' 82-81 victory at the Civic Arena.

A turnover cost the Eagles a chance to take a game-winning shot and advance to the holy land of the Sweet 16, but the Eagles still were smiling in the locker room.

"This [weekend] was just about the greatest thing I have ever experienced," said junior guard Antoine Brockington, who led the Eagles with 27 points. "We showed the world that we could play. We had a sold-out arena cheering for us."

How could any loss, even one this disappointing, compete with the thrill of being noticed and wanted for the first time?

"That crowd," Welch said, shaking his head in amazement. "I have never heard noise like that in my life. Not when the cheers were for me, at least. It was just magical. I was riding a magic carpet out there."

The Eagles became the upset darlings of the tournament when they knocked out second-seeded South Carolina in the first round Friday. They then spent the next 48 hours as the toast of Pittsburgh, signing autographs and riding in cabs for free.

Suddenly, they were no longer the underfunded, underpublicized team with a tiny constituency, the team that couldn't even make the front pages at home.

They had been discovered, accepted and reinvented as stars.

"The people here didn't even know us," Welch said. "But they appreciated us."

You knew the Eagles were among friends when the crowd gave them a standing ovation as they stood up from their seats and headed for their locker room late in the first game of the doubleheader between Louisville and New Mexico.

"Where I come from, I'm happy if I get 20 people cheering for me," Coppin coach Fang Mitchell said. "To hear 17,000-plus cheering for you was tremendous."

After a quiet first half, which Texas dominated, the crowd erupted when Coppin began to rally from 12 points down early in the second half.

Brockington hit a three-pointer and a driving banker to start the rally, sank an off-balance prayer from 16 feet to cut the margin to two, then gave the Eagles the lead with a rainbow three-pointer that brought down the house.

He hit more big shots in five minutes than Maryland's entire team did in the last month of the season.

"They were playing out of their minds and the place just went nuts," Texas coach Tom Penders said.

Texas quieted the crowd and regained control thanks to guard Reggie Freeman, who scored or assisted on 19 straight Texas points to give the Longhorns the lead at 75-67 with five minutes left.

"But the more we came at them, the harder they came back at us," Texas center Dennis Jordan said.

The Eagles cut the lead back to two, then seemed to blow the game with three straight turnovers. But Welch banked in one three-pointer and Brockington hit another from the wing to cut the lead to one with 42 seconds left. Then Brockington tipped and stole a pass to give Coppin the ball and a chance to win.

"I'm proud of the way we kept coming back," said Coppin point guard Danny Singletary, who had six steals. "We lost, but we were about as hard to beat as it gets."

They lost because Texas made a final defensive stand. Freeman blocked Singletary's attempt on a baseline drive, and Texas' DeJuan Vazquez then stole the inbounds pass to seal the win. The Eagles had hoped to go inside to Welch.

"To not even get a shot off, that hurts," Welch said. "But give [Texas] credit. They made big-time plays."

Cheered off the court as if they had won, the Eagles closed their locker room for almost 20 minutes after the game.

"It was hard at first," Brockington said, "but then you start to step back and see what happened here this weekend. We did so much. We won a game no one thought we could win. We won over the town. We came back over and over again in this game."

His smile grew wider as he spoke.

"To go through what we go through at Coppin, where you feel like no one gives you the respect, it's just the greatest feeling to open other people's eyes to what you can do," he said. "You could almost hear the crowd starting to believe in us today. I know the rest of the nation was watching. I think everyone is going to know our names from now on. That makes me very proud."

Pub Date: 3/17/97

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