Chaotic season turns into free-for-all

After a slippery start, Coppin heads into tourney watchful of surprises

Mid-Eastern Athletic men

March 06, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Fang Mitchell can be coy when it suits him, such as when he's asked how his team can win this week's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament in Richmond, Va.

"Things have to go right," the Coppin State men's basketball coach said, refusing to elaborate for fear of tipping his hand to other local schools, namely Morgan State and UMES. "I'll let them figure out what we need to do rather than me telling them; they both read the same paper."

But Mitchell isn't being diplomatic by saying that this tournament can be won by any one of eight teams, including Morgan State (5-23) and UMES (11-16), which play tonight at approximately 6: 30 at the Arthur Ashe Center.

Experience is the guide for the Eagles, who lost to the Bears and the Hawks during the regular season.

Of the six low-seeded teams that play today and tomorrow for the right to enter the quarterfinals, Howard (1-26) was the only MEAC school not to give Coppin fits.

"All you have to do is look at the schools who beat us," Mitchell said. "This has been a very different year."

A different year, with the Eagles in a similar position. The Eagles' second-place conference finish will have to suffice for the "haters," as Mitchell refers to those awaiting Coppin's downfall after seven consecutive MEAC regular-season titles.

It looked like a season without many possibilities as it began with point guard Rasheem Sims hurt for opening weeks of the season, leaving Jorge Cajigas and Kofi Pointer as the only Eagles with any appreciable experience.

The rest, mutually unsure of their peers, muddled through with road wins over South Carolina State and North Carolina A&T as the only successes in November and December.

In the MEAC, however, the Eagles raced from fifth place to what could have been first if eventual-champion South Carolina State had lost to North Carolina A&T on Saturday night.

"What they're doing now is playing more as a team," Mitchell said. "They're more comfortable in each other's ability to take care of things. It might be the thing of making the extra pass or playing defense much better than we have in the past."

The favorite saying of teams at this time of year is that all records revert back to no wins, no losses.

Few see this as better news than Morgan State, which can counterbalance a rough season.

"We want to win the tournament. Every team goes in with that in mind," Fuller said. "I think we're capable. Some guys have elevated their game in the last few weeks. To be playing well at the end of the season is a plus for us."

Indeed, the Bears did close out the regular season in a happy manner, earning an 86-77 victory over Delaware State to end a six-game losing streak.

Though Morgan State tied with the Hornets for ninth place, the Bears are seeded 10th by virtue of a greater margin of defeat in the other meeting between the two teams.

But in UMES, the Bears get to play one of the teams they beat earlier in the season (77-70 on Jan. 15). Moreover, the coach sees the seeding or opponent as unimportant.

"Everyone's excited about the opportunity to get into the NCAA tournament," Fuller said. "We're happy to be going in after winning a game, but we didn't give a lot of thought to who we were going to play."

Fuller cited ball movement and shooting as areas where his team has improved during the past few weeks. The win over Delaware State was the third straight in which the Bears scored more than 80 points.

Now, if only there would be improvement on the defensive end. In the past five games, Morgan State has given up 85.8 points -- permissible for any team a decade ago but troublesome in the present.

"On defense, we have more holes to fill," said Fuller, whose team is allowing opponents to shoot nearly 50 percent, to shoot nearly 30 free throws and hit six three-pointers a game. "In particular, we have to do a better job of defending the perimeter."

Women

The Morgan State women -- who play Wednesday against the second-lowest remaining seed (which will be determined today or tomorrow) -- were shown how far they have to come last week in a game against MEAC-champion Howard.

Playing against the favorite to win the tournament, the Bears failed to get the calls that come with respect and were roughed up by the Bison, as Andrea Garner grabbed 25 rebounds.

"We haven't won anything to garner that respect yet," Morgan State coach Gerard Garlic said. "Right now, we're fighting for it like everyone else."

The Bears, despite some turbulence, won five of their past eight games to remain in second place. That puts them in good shape, but their first match is likely to come against Florida A&M, the defending champion and winner of two road games over upper-division teams Hampton and Norfolk State.

At Coppin State, Derek Brown knows that he has two rainmakers in Kiesha Brooks and Liesha Mitchell.

The question -- as the pair and Brown posed it after a loss to Morgan State to end the conference season -- is whether there will be anyone else.

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