NORFOLK, Va. -- Coppin State's road to a second straight Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball championship was made a little easier yesterday, when two of the bigger hazards in its way were cleaned up, one courtesy of its crosstown rival.
Everyone expected the Eagles to be in tonight's semifinals, where they will play Florida A&M;, a mild upset winner over North Carolina A&T.; Other than A&T;, the only MEAC team to beat Coppin State in the regular season was South Carolina State, but it too was waylaid, 73-72, by none other than Morgan State.
Two of the three teams that finished tied for second behind Coppin State are gone, and the other, Delaware State, figures to have its hands full with Morgan State in the other semifinal. The Golden Bears caused heartache for South Carolina State last night, but they could have the MEAC front office crying in its checkbook should they pull another surprise and meet Coppin State in tomorrow's championship (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
That possible match won't draw many to the Norfolk Scope, but it would do just fine at the Baltimore Arena. This is the start of a three-year run for the tournament at the Scope.
Coppin State, now a big favorite to win the tournament again and play at the Southland Conference champion next zTC Wednesday for the right to go to the NCAA tournament, wasn't pleased with a 92-67 rout of Bethune-Cookman. Morgan State, conversely, was ecstatic after a buzzer-beating foul-line jumper by senior forward Marcus Sheffield delivered what some administrators called the Golden Bears' biggest win since 1979.
"I know I've never had a bigger win," said first-year coach Michael Holmes, whose previous head coaching experience was 10 years at the Division II level. "It's special because Morgan State has been down for so long, and these guys have endured so much."
Morgan State is still only 7-21 overall, but it is .500 since an 0-14 start that included the first 12 games on the road, including visits to Providence, Georgia Tech and New Mexico State. The trials of last night's heroes are indicative of what the Golden Bears have been through.
Sheffield, who had 10 points, sat out all of last year and the start of this season because of academic problems. Sophomore forward Glenn Smith, who had 21 points, spent most of February in Holmes' doghouse. Senior guard Jason McCoy, still recovering from a knee injury, had 14 points and seven assists, and he was a big reason the Golden Bears had a 71-65 lead with 2:02 left. Steve Haynes, the team's most reliable player, chipped in with 12 points and seven rebounds.
Everything still wasn't in place for Morgan State, however, as point guard Alex Parker had a hand injury in a Wednesday pratice. South Carolina State scored seven straight points before Sheffield took an in-bounds pass, dribbled around one defender and nailed a shot that sent everyone from the Morgan State band to athletic director Leonard Braxton rushing on to the floor.
"I'll admit it, a couple of months ago I didn't think we'd get this far," Sheffield said. "The thing a lot of people forget is that we do have some experienced players. It's just been a while since we've done anything."
The veterans at Coppin State (19-9) ho-hummed their way past Bethune-Cookman. Reggie Isaac missed his first eight shots, but two-time MEAC Player of the Year Larry Stewart was on from the start, collecting 27 points and 16 rebounds. Isaac finished with 26, and for the season he has one more point than Stewart. Both are averaging 24.2. MEAC Rookie of the Year James Mazyck had 17.
Stewart actually sounded disappointed with the earlier upsets, since the Eagles won't be able to avenge two of their regular-season defeats.
"That's unfortunate, especially since North Carolina A&T; lost," Stewart said. "I wanted another crack at them. It's difficult to beat a team three times in a row, and that's what we're looking at with Florida A&M.;"
The Eagles trailed by five late in the first half against a Bethune-Cookman team that posted its fifth win the night before, but coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell didn't complain.
"At this point of the year though, you take them and look ahead to the next day. You're still playing, and some aren't."