Top-seeded Coppin State ready to perform its MEAC mission Eagles set sights on return to NCAAs


NORFOLK, Va. -- They're coming off their second straight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference regular-season championship, but as the Coppin State Eagles left their West Baltimore campus for the conference tournament, there was little fanfare.

"Our kids don't look for any send-off," Coppin coach Fang Mitchell said before boarding the bus. "We're just going down with an understanding of what we have to do."

That understanding is to win their second straight MEAC tournament. The mission begins today at The Scope in Norfolk, Va., when the top-seeded Eagles (18-9, 14-2) play

Bethune-Cookman, which defeated Maryland Eastern Shore, 81-71, last night. Before the Coppin game, No. 7 seed Morgan State (6-21, 6-10) will face No. 2 seed South Carolina State in another quarterfinal.

A tournament win would move the Eagles one step closer to their second straight National Collegiate Athletic Association berth; a loss would make them a long shot for even a National Invitation Tournament berth.

Mitchell put his team through a 6 a.m. practice before its departure Tuesday.

"They worked hard, and they were even mad that we didn't get more of a practice in," Mitchell said. "They understand what this mission is about. And as long as they understand, I'm in good shape."

Coppin twice won easily over Bethune-Cookman this season. If the Eagles win, their semifinal opponent would be the winner of today's game between No. 4 seed North Carolina A&T; (which split two games with Coppin) and No. 5 Florida A&M.;

"We knew we'd have a possibility of facing them somewhere," Mitchell said of the Aggies, who were second in the MEAC for much of the season. "But we really can't worry about the seeding, with such good teams like South Carolina State and Delaware State. What's important is for us to have the right attitude."

The four holdover starters from last season -- Larry Stewart, Reggie Isaac, Larry McCollum and Larry Yarbray -- have performed steadily this season. But the real key for the Eagles probably will be how well two freshmen -- James Mazyck and Tariq Saunders -- play under pressure.

"They'll feel some pressure being this is their first time," Mitchell said. "But we realize, and they realize, that this is a playoff. They've gained confidence through the season, and I no longer look at them as freshmen."

First-year Morgan State coach Michael Holmes has been through the MEAC tournament as an assistant at Florida A&M;, but this will be his first appearance as a head coach. The Bears lost their first 14 games but have gone 6-7 since.

"I think we're in good shape, and the guys know that they can win," Holmes said after Saturday's loss to Howard. "It's a matter of getting our timing right."

The Bears lost both games to South Carolina State this season, but the second -- an 83-72 defeat on Feb. 16 -- came when forward Glenn Smith and center Marcus Sheffield were suspended for missing a practice. Both are back, but the team will need to keep mistakes to a minimum -- as it did in its Feb. 18 win over North Carolina A&T; -- to stretch its season another game.

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