Coppin women prove a power in own right

Out of shadow of Mitchell's men, they boast 13-0 mark in MEAC

February 18, 2006|By KENT BAKER | KENT BAKER,SUN REPORTER

In the 1990s, Coppin State's men's basketball team was the scourge of Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball. Even when the program dropped off briefly with the start of the new millennium, there was a universal theme among league opponents: "Always watch out for Fang."

The reference was to Fang Mitchell, who had built a reputation as one of the premier coaches in the country at getting the most production from the fewest resources.

Now the Eagles coach, who also doubles as the school's athletic director, has company in that regard - and it has surfaced from within the Coppin family.

The women's team has joined its male counterpart as the biggest name in the MEAC, a label it has justly earned with unprecedented success in recent years under Mitchell's former top assistant with the men, Derek Brown. The byword on the female side is quickly becoming, "Always watch out for Derek."

When the Lady Eagles (14-8, 13-0 MEAC) engage visiting North Carolina A&T tonight, they will be striving to extend a 21-game winning streak over conference rivals that stretches back to Feb. 12, 2005. The defending league champions, who made their first NCAA tournament appearance a year ago, are 41-8 in conference play through the past three seasons.

"I'm so proud of how hard and determined they play," Mitchell said. "And that's attributable to Derek. But I'm not surprised. He's very knowledgeable and has the temperament to deal with various situations."

The program faced a multitude of challenges after Coppin, a 16th seed, had the misfortune of drawing North Carolina at the Smith Center for its opening-round NCAA game and was never a factor in a 97-62 rout.

Leaving were point guard Denita Plain, the glue of the squad, defensive stopper Courtni Strickland and the top two rebounders and No. 2 and 3 scorers, LaKesha Wills (Dunbar) and Leisel Harry.

Another veteran, Talia Sutton, was missed early in the season when Coppin lost eight of its nine pre-MEAC games. The only victory in that span came at crosstown rival Morgan State in what was designated a nonleague game since they were scheduled to play only once this season under the conference rotation system.

There was a lot of talent to replace. So, just as Mitchell has done throughout two decades at Coppin, Brown had already turned homeward for help, mining the high school they both attended in Camden, N.J., Woodrow Wilson, for a mother lode.

The groundwork to fortify the roster had been laid a year earlier when Wilson grads Shalamar Oakley and Ebony Allen transferred from other programs. Then, the presence of Oakley, who has taken over for Plain, was all that was needed to entice 6-foot-3 center Tanezia Harden, a lifelong teammate, to enter Coppin as a freshman last fall after Woodrow Wilson had won a state title.

At Hofstra, the swift, 5-foot-6 Oakley "couldn't make the impact I wanted to. It just wasn't the right place. And they had my major [criminal justice] here, so I was comfortable."

She is averaging twice as many minutes as in her freshman year at Hofstra, scoring at a 9.3-point clip and leading the team in assists.

Harden, who admitted she needed to adjust to the speed of collegiate play, said her family has known Brown for a "long time. I just knew I was coming here. It was close to home and Shalamar was always telling me all about it."

She is averaging 6.2 points and 4.2 rebounds on an extremely well-balanced squad.

"This is a quicker, taller and a little more athletic team than last year's," Brown said. "The experience is not there, but they're learning quickly. There doesn't seem to be a huge letdown in any game. As long as I keep prodding them about the little things, that will keep them humble."

It's not that the cupboard was completely bare. Senior Sherrie Tucker is the reigning MEAC Player of the Year and the preseason favorite to repeat. She leads the team in scoring (12.9 ppg) and rebounding (4.8 rpg, tied with holdover Rashida Suber).

Tucker agrees with her coach that defense is the backbone of the Lady Eagles. They are allowing only 52.5 points, sixth nationally, and a .343 opposing shooting percentage, third in the country.

"We had stoppers last year, but we're better as a team on defense," she said. "That's the thing. When your offense is bad, defense is constant."

Brown calls Suber "our vocal and cerebral leader. She keeps everything together, doing all the intangibles. She's almost like another point guard at forward."

Things peaked for the Lady Eagles when they rallied from 17 down at halftime to win at South Carolina State, 61-57, on Jan. 23. So far, that has been the toughest MEAC test since the opener, and they will meet again here Monday.

"We didn't know what to expect and it was a hostile environment," Oakley said. "We were thrown off a little bit. We'll know this time. When we play defense together and with a lot of energy, nobody can stop us."

kent.baker@baltsun.com

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