Floor plans take shape tonight for Battle foes

Seasons for 4 area schools tip off, as teams look to build winning foundations

November 19, 1999|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Even before the second Battle of Baltimore begins tonight, Coppin State has made a big splash simply by taking part in the tournament.

By virtue of an upset victory over No. 2 seed South Carolina in the 1997 NCAA tournament that people are still talking about, the Eagles remain the marquee program among three still hunting for identity. The other contenders are UMBC, Loyola and Towson.

The Eagles sat out the Battle in 1998 because Morgan State participated, and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference rules prohibit non-league games between league teams. At its home at the Coppin Center, the Eagles play UMBC at 9: 30 p.m. after Loyola and Towson face off at 7 p.m.

Two days before the season opener for Coppin -- along with UMBC, Loyola and Towson -- it was clear that the larger-than-life personality needed to elevate the event resides in Fang Mitchell.

At a news conference earlier this week, those who didn't have a Mitchell anecdote knew to anticipate some sort of poor-mouthing spiel about his team by the Coppin coach. He didn't disappoint.

The Eagles, who finished second in the MEAC with a 15-14 record, have three starters returning -- Jorge Cajigas, Rasheem Sims and Kofi Pointer (Southern).

Instead of Cajigas, Sims or Pointer, freshman Larry Tucker accompanied Mitchell.

"Any time I bring a walk-on to show the talent that I have," Mitchell said, "if people feel that I'm crying, I'm truly crying."

Nine days ago, the entire Eagles team practiced for the first time. The key returning player was Sims, a sophomore point guard who started in 22 of 27 games last year while earning MEAC All-Rookie honors.

After missing much of the preseason with a broken bone in his foot, Sims will play tonight, Mitchell said, but he may not start for another month or until he gets in more practice time.

Last season's Battle was a turning point in the UMBC season. After near 30-point losses to both Pittsburgh and Maryland, the Retrievers entered the tournament and lost two more to Loyola and Morgan State.

Immediately afterward, coach Tom Sullivan -- with an 0-4 record -- made lineup changes, and the team won its 16 of its next 17 games, finishing 19-9 and winning the Northeast Conference regular-season title.

"Last year, the Baltimore was a turning point, because we didn't play as well as we were capable of," said UMBC guard Terence Ward, still questionable for the weekend because of an ankle injury he suffered two weeks ago.

Though the Retrievers had the best season of any Beltway-area team last season, Ward recognizes that the Eagles are the figurative team to beat.

"With the reputation that they have, that brings a bit more to this game for us," he said. "The fact that we're playing Coppin at Coppin, we know that that's a tough situation."

The team with the merriest memories of last year's Battle is Loyola, which beat Towson, 76-67, for the tourney title. Greyhounds coach Dino Gaudio said that he's been showing his players tape of the team's past two games against the Tigers.

In 1997, Loyola escaped with a 73-71 victory, scoring the game's last six points in the final two minutes. The second was last year's tournament victory, in which the Tigers lingered withing striking distance until the final minute.

The lesson, of course, wouldn't be necessary if Towson had won more than 14 games over the past two seasons. But Gaudio said, "I expect the game to be close and hard-fought. With the guys [Tigers coach Mike Jaskulski] has coming back, it's going to be close."

The good news for Jaskulski is that with the exception of Josh Davalli (out with a sprained medial collateral ligament), his projected starting lineup remains intact. Torin Ragin and Mike Shin, transfers from Wyoming and Pittsburgh, make their first starts for Towson tonight.

Battle of Baltimore

Where: Coppin Center

TV: Channel 2 (both games tonight; championship game tomorrow)

Tickets: $10 (available at the four participating schools and Channel 2; student tickets for $5 must be purchased today at Coppin State. Call 410-383-5607)

Schedule:

Tonight Loyola vs. Towson, 7 UMBC vs. Coppin State, 9: 30

Tomorrow night

Consolation, 6

Championship, 9

Last year's final:

Loyola 76, Towson 67

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