After Coppin State lost the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament championship and a bid to the NCAA tournament by three points, coach Derek Brown made the walk upstairs to the concourse level of Norfolk Scope Arena in to meet family and friends.
He looked around the crowded scene and found two of his former players: Sherrie Tucker and Shalamar Oakley, with whom he won league titles in 2005, 2006 and 2008. He approached them, then called over Larissa Carter, who had just played her last game for the Eagles, a demoralizing 50-47 loss to Hampton.
“Even though this group didn’t win a championship, I love these girls just as much as you guys,” Brown said to his former players.
Part of it is because of the fight the team showed all season. The Eagles bounced back from an early 4-9 record to finish 17-14 overall. They came back from an 11-point deficit to beat North Carolina A&T in the semifinals of the MEAC tournament.
Part of it is about leadership. This season, the three seniors — Carter, Kyra Coleman and Ashle Craig — made Brown’s job easy. The coach rarely had to raise his voice or mete out discipline.
Early in October, when players started showing up late, the three seniors took control. “Coach, we got it. Don’t worry about it,” Brown recalled them saying. And it was never a problem again.
And part of it is about how well his team played.
Heading into the season, Brown didn’t know where his scoring was going to come from. Two of his top three scorers, Leolaa Spotwood and Shawntae Payne, had graduated.
The seniors brought it. Craig scored 12.4 points a game, Carter averaged 13.1, and Coleman led the way with 17.1 and a number of standout performances.
On Feb. 10, against Morgan State, a 31-point game made her the first Coppin State women’s player to score 30 or more points in consecutive games since 2006. In the MEAC final against Hampton, Coleman posted 18 points and 11 rebounds for her fifth double double of the season.
Now, with his top three scorers graduating, Brown finds himself in a situation similar to a year ago. He doesn’t know where the scoring is going to come from, but he does know his team has a few things going for it.
First, the Eagles will return sophomore Amber Griffin, who led the MEAC in assist-to-turnover ratio.
“She is a great young lady, and she is going to be one of the leaders next year, if not the leader,” Brown said. “And I can only see her getting better. She works endlessly.”
A player he needs to step up is sophomore Janelle Lane, who emerged as the starting center this year.
"If we can get her into the mix, and to start working as hard as those three seniors worked and also with Amber, then that is where next year goes," Brown said. "If everyone buys in, we’ll be OK.”
Her development, as it will with others', begins with postseason workouts. Coppin State is on spring break this week, and Brown will give his team another week to re-acclimate itself to class, having missed time with the conference tournament. Then, under NCAA rules, Coppin State can practice together until the women's tournament is over.
“And basically this is where our players get better for next year,” said Brown, whose Eagles can play practice for eight hours a day, but for only two hours on the court. “This is where they work on their deficiencies. I think this is a very important summer and postseason for these sophomores that will play next year."
Brown also thinks his bench, comprised entirely of sophomores and one junior, benefited from watching the three seniors this year.
“By playing with and just by watching the three seniors, they learned how hard they play,” Brown said. "The effort that those three seniors gave all year long was incredible. And so it has been a very enjoyable year because of them. Next year, again, the [returning players] who saw the leadership know what it is about. And they know how to get there.”