Night of rising temperatures, rocking Hill

February 26, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

How loud was it? So loud that you couldn't even hear Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell's resounding sideline show. That's loud.

It was so loud at Hill Field House last night, so loud and hot and packed with fans, that every basket was a holiday, a celebration, a day off from school.

Early, the public address announcer warned fans not to lean on any railings. Late, he asked them not to throw ice at the cheerleaders.

It was that kind of night.

The NBA's Wizards were playing at the MCI Center, just an hour's drive away, and the usual array of Division I big-timers were dribbling away on ESPN, but you could have all that for a nickel.

Morgan State and Coppin State were raising Hill's renovated roof before a rollicking full house and local TV cameras, with neighborhood bragging rights and the No. 2 seed in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference postseason tournament at stake, and, well, it was clearly the place to be.

A decade or so ago, when Towson and Loyola were battling over the right to be known as "Baltimore's Team," what unfolded last night was impossible to envision:

Coppin and Morgan, the city's best college basketball rivalry.

Morgan and Coppin, the ticket of tickets.

And not just because of the noise and passion, because it's basketball as sweaty, noisy opera.

Suddenly, the rivalry is a competitive one, too.

Morgan couldn't hold a halftime lead in the face of Coppin's defense pressure and lost, 71-61, resulting in a split of the teams' season series. But considering that Mitchell had won 22 of 25 games against Morgan before this season, the close competition was evidence of an uptick in Morgan's fortunes.

Yes, this is Morgan's best team in a decade and something of a down year for Coppin, which has dominated the MEAC in the '90s, but still, after so many years of woe, Morgan has the look of a program on the rise.

Bears coach Chris Fuller has overseen a steady arc of improvement in his four years on the job. He won seven games in his first season, then nine, then 12 last season. This year, the Bears are 13-13 and finished third in the MEAC. Pretty heady territory.

They also have a bright, refurbished gym to play in now that Hill is open. No more games at Gilman.

A win last night would have pushed them past Coppin in the final regular-season standings, no small measure of accomplishment for a team that has struggled. That possibility and the new digs lured an overflow crowd that clearly didn't care the game was televised.

Actually, the place was almost full an hour beforehand, thanks to a Coppin-Morgan women's game that came first. As that game ended, long lines of fans stretched from the ticket windows into the chilly evening.

By tip-off, the stands were full and the standing-room sections at the ends of the court were lined five-deep.

Morgan all-timer Marvin Webster was in the house, as was legendary coach Clarence "Big House" Gaines, a Morgan graduate and winner of more college games than every coach in history other than Dean Smith and Adolph Rupp. They were part of a halftime ceremony.

Morgan can always throw a crowd at you, in good times and bad.

That crowd rattled the doors throughout the first half, but lost its fire when Coppin asserted its pedigree with a 12-0 run late in the second half.

It could be that the Eagles were more accustomed to the big-game atmosphere, having spent the early part of this season where they always spend it, on the road, taking their well-paying lumps at Syracuse, Oklahoma, Cal, Iowa, New Mexico and elsewhere in Dickie V land.

"This just seemed like another road game to me," said Coppin's darting point guard, Jorge Caligas, who started the game with a volley of NBA-range three-pointers and finished with 23 points and seven rebounds.

Mitchell smiled in listening to his fearless junior guard speak to reporters. Just another road game?

"I love him," Mitchell said, shaking his head.

The Eagles lost 12 of their first 14 games this season, suffering from the loss of several marquee players in the past few years. But they're raising their game almost every day now as they add an inside game to go with their solid backcourt play.

"At the beginning of the season I called our big guys `imposters,' " Mitchell said. "Now they're real people."

The end result was a March-caliber performance, a big delivery in a big game, one that announced that Coppin won't go easily in the MEAC tournament next week.

"It's always Coppin against the world in the MEAC," Mitchell said. "That's the reality."

Morgan took on that reality last night in a show easily worthy of television, loud and tense and triumphant in the end.

"We're from Coppin State!" the Eagles' fans chanted as the big crowd headed for the exits near the end.

The cheer echoed through a gym finally gone quiet, at the end of a long, loud night.

Pub Date: 2/26/99

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