Loyola fans don't need to look far for inspiration for Greyhounds' game

March 14, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

Loyola fans, you're hoping for a miracle in Pittsburgh Thursday night, aren't you?

Your Greyhounds, the No. 15 seed in the East Regional, take on mighty No. 2 seed Ohio State in the secondround of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

On paper, of course, it doesn't look great.

Loyola-Ohio State, that's not David taking on Goliath. It's more like David's younger brother, the one with asthma and thick glasses, taking on Goliath.

It's like the Boy Scouts going up against the Marines. Or Joe's Eats going up against McDonald's.

But that doesn't mean you can't hope for an upset, Loyola fans. Upsets happen at the Big Dance all the time.

Sure, in 27 years, the 15-seed has beaten the 2-seed only four times. But if you're looking for inspiration, one of the teams that did it is right here in town, right down the road from your campus, in fact: Coppin State.

What a story that was, too, one that's right up there with the biggest upsets in NCAA history.

Fifteen years ago, little Coppin, the 15-seed and a 30-point underdog, went to Pittsburgh and knocked off big, bad 2-seed South Carolina in an East Regional upset that shocked the world.

When it was over, Fang Mitchell's Eagles were hugging and high-fiving as the Gamecocks, winners of the Southeastern Conference regular-season crown, watched with stunned disbelief.

Final score: Coppin 78, South Carolina 65.

So don't bother asking Mitchell, Coppin's gregarious, long-time coach, if he believes in miracles. And when I asked him Wednesday if he had any tips for Jimmy Patsos and the 'Hounds in Thursday's game with the Buckeyes, he gave me this deep, throaty laugh.

"The only advice I have is: relax," Mitchell said. "They have to relax. Jimmy's going to prepare them. Then they gotta believe in themselves. If they don't believe in themselves, they're really going to have a problem."

The Eagles, Mitchell says, believed in themselves from the minute the bus pulled up to the arena.

"Our guys went in with an attitude," he said. "People lacked respect for them. But they believed in themselves. They went in with the attitude of: we're going to win."

Another key for the 'Hounds Thursday, says Mitchell, is "they have to find a way to stay in the game early. They have the talent or they wouldn't be there."

Coppin kept its game against South Carolina close right up to halftime. And sensing an underdog with a heart the size of the Bromo Seltzer Tower, "the crowd switched to us," Mitchell recalled.

In fact, by the start of the second half, many in the sell-out crowd at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena were on their feet and chanting "Let's Go, Eagles! Let's Go, Eagles!"

"We wouldn't go away," Mitchell said. "We kept hanging in there."

With 6:12 to go, Coppin finally took the lead, 55-54, on an 18-foot jump shot by Danny Singletary and slowly began pulling away.

Now they were focused and relaxed. The big-game pressure was gone. At times, it almost felt like they were running back at the gym on North Avenue.

"We didn't even know it was South Carolina out there," Reggie Welch, Coppin's leading rebounder, told reporters after the game. "We kept on getting confidence and before you knew it, we were up. We took it five minutes at a time – 'there's five minutes, there's five more.'"

For Mitchell, stalking the sidelines, the mantra was: don't let the Gamecocks go on a run before the next time-out.

"Each time out," he said, "you want to be right there. Either up or close."

AfterCBS'sSelection Sunday show, when Loyola learned who it would play in the first round, Patsos said one of the things that concerned him most was not having a go-to scorer, a "30-point guy" the 'Hounds could count on when they absolutely needed a basket.

But Mitchell said Loyola's bigger problem will be containing Jared Sullinger, the Buckeyes' mega-talented 6-9, 270-pound sophomore center, who's a matchup nightmare because of his bulk.

"They'll have to double-team him," Mitchell said simply. "Make someone else beat you."

Then if everything breaks right, if the 'Hounds shoot lights out and keep their cool and the stars come out and the planets align, maybe they pull off another upset for the ages.

Lot of "ifs" there. But you never know.

Pittsburgh's a blue-collar town, said Mitchell. And the crowds love blue-collar teams like Loyola's, even though there will be plenty of Buckeyes fans, too, with Columbus so close by.

"They'll love Jimmy Patsos," Mitchell said with a chuckle. "He goes in and he doesn't believe he can't win."

If he gets his team to believe, maybe we see a game Thursday.

Because Fang's right: that's the only way it happens.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. Tuesdays on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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