Coppin's strange defeat leaves Mitchell puzzled


NORFOLK, Va. -- Yesterday Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell was still reeling over Friday's 74-70 loss to Florida A&M; that kept his team out of last night's Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference final.

"If that game was on television, it would have been so disgraceful," Mitchell said, laughing to hide the hurt. "I shouldn't have to go through that. Our kids shouldn't have to go through that. Nobody should have to go through that."

Coppin entered the tournament as the top seed and was attempting to reach the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament for the second year in a row. Instead, the Eagles (19-10) ran into a fired-up Rattlers team (the fifth seed) and a trio of officials who made quite a few questionable calls against them.

The biggest was an over-the-back foul call on Larry Stewart, the nation's third-leading rebounder, with 1 minute, 37 seconds left and the score tied at 66. Most people saw Stewart jump straight up and cleanly snatch a Reggie Issac miss off the rim. But the baseline official -- with possibly the worst position -- said Stewart was over the back of Kelvin Daniels, who hit two free throws. Coppin, which had fought back from a 20-point first-half deficit, never recovered.

"All I could see was Stewart jamming the ball in," Mitchell said. "They not only wouldn't let us win, they wouldn't even let us lead."

The apparent season-ending loss (the Eagles have an outside shot at the National Invitation Tournament) ended a frustrating two weeks for Mitchell. Upon returning from an operation to remove a benign tumor from the base of his neck, Mitchell found out that the Eagles -- the regular-season MEAC champions -- would play Thursday's 8:30 p.m. quarterfinal game (most conference winners are awarded the first game, so they can have a longer period of rest before their next game).

"What did we play for all season? [Florida A&M;] had the eight hours' rest that we were supposed to have," said Mitchell, referring to the Rattlers' playing in the first quarterfinal game on Thursday.

While Mitchell had many valid complaints (his starting and backup centers fouled out in limited time, and on one out-of-bounds play late in the game, the official -- instead of handing the ball to Coppin's James Mazyck -- placed the ball on the ground, walked away and then called a five-second violation), he admitted his team's position at the end of the game stemmed from the Rattlers being fired up. They were aggressive from the outset, building the 20-point lead 15 minutes into the game.

"It was us who dug our own hole," Mitchell said. "I'm disappointed with some of the guys who didn't play well -- and I'm not talking about the freshmen."

Reggie Isaac scored 19 points, hit five of 19 field-goal attempts and missed his first eight shots. Stewart (19 points) was six of 11 from the field but, with three men on him most of the game, missed some shots that he normally makes. And point guard Larry Yarbray made a key turnover down the stretch and shot an air ball on the front end of a one-and-one with 1:02 left and Coppin trailing by two.

Mitchell is hoping for an NIT berth, but with the league's reputation, that is a long shot. The MEAC's best team was watching last night's championship game instead of defending its title.

"This season was somewhat of a disappointment," Mitchell said. "Our goal was to win the conference, then get back in the NCAAs. Anything short of that, I can't look at as a successful season.

"It hurts when you don't give your best and you're not successful," he added. "Some of our guys know they didn't give their best."

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