NORFOLK, Va. -- When top-seeded Coppin State fell behind by seven points early in the first half of last night's game against Florida A&M;, forward Tariq Saunders thought back to two years ago when the teams played in a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference semifinal under similar circumstances.
"I had flashbacks," said Saunders, recalling the upset loss. "I knew we had to really go at this team."
After falling behind early, Coppin went after Florida A&M; with authority. The Eagles held the Rattlers without a field goal for more than nine minutes during a 20-1 first-half run that helped spark an 81-69 win before 387 at The Scope.
Coppin (21-7) advances to this afternoon's MEAC championship game against Delaware State, a 75-64 winner over South Carolina State in last night's late semifinal. A win today by Coppin, whose 15 game-winning streak is the longest among Division I teams, would give the Eagles an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
"Having the opportunity to win the MEAC is good for the university, good for all of us," Coppin coach Fang Mitchell said. "I haven't thought about what happened two years ago. All I'm thinking about now is being successful."
Coppin found its success on both ends of the court last night.
Offensively the Eagles, the worst-shooting team in the league, shot 55.2 percent in the second half, hitting nine of their first 13 field goals in the first eight minutes that helped blow the game open.
The damage by the MEAC's best defensive team was done in the first half, when Coppin held Florida A&M; without a field goal for a span of 9:21. The Eagles went on a 21-1 run during that span -- with 18 of the points coming from Coppin reserves -- to turn a seven-point deficit to a 31-18 lead.
"We started out a little lethargic, but after a timeout, we took control of the game with our defense," Mitchell said. "Once you get into your defensive rhythm, your offense will come."
Stephen Stewart, the MEAC Rookie of the Year, was in an offensive rhythm all night. Limited to nine minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, Stewart scored 11 of his game-high 20 during nine minutes of the second half, as the Eagles increased a nine-point halftime lead to 59-35. Stewart was unstoppable in the low post, hitting seven of 10 from the field and five of six from the free-throw line.
"I just wanted to assert myself," Stewart said. "When we go out we always want to establish our inside game. That opens up the rest of our game.
Impressed with Stewart's performance was Florida A&M; assistant coach Jim Duplantier.
"[Stewart] carried them," Duplantier said. Head coach Willie Booker, whose job is reported to be in jeapordy, did not speak to reporters afterward. "He shot the ball exceptionally well under good pressure defense. He had not been that tough against us before."
The Coppin win was far from a one-man show. Five players
scored in double figures and all but one player scored. The Eagles also played good helping defense, holding Florida A&M; to 39.1 percent shooting from the field and checking All-MEAC forward Delon Turner (18 points, five rebounds).
"With Delon, you have to get help," Mitchell said. "During our run in the first half is when we really contained him."
The Eagles won for the 19th time in the past 20 games.
Going into the season with a young lineup, Coppin was picked to finish as low as seventh place. The Eagles, who did not have a player on the all-conference first team, did not lose a conference game this season and have left behind a long line of impressed opponents.
"They are a very poised team," Duplantier said. "They don't play with a lot of emotion, but they play with a lot of intensity. They can execute what they want. On some plays, you knew exactly what they were running, and they still were able to get the job done."
Coppin has won one MEAC tournament -- in 1991 when Larry Stewart, Stephen's older brother, and Reggie Isaac led the Eagles to the school's first NCAA tournament appearance.
"When the season started, we didn't blend together as a team," Stewart said. "But we all sacrificed, and after a while, things fell into place and we felt we could do some damage in the league. We developed confidence in ourselves."
NOTES: Coppin State won both meetings against Delaware State this season, 73-64 at Delaware State on Feb. 3 and 75-57 at Coppin on Feb. 10. . . . Florda A&M; failed to advance to the tournament championship game for the first time in three years. The Rattlers lost to Howard in last year's title game and won the tournament two years ago.
, (At The Scope, Norfolk, Va.)
-! Howard 86, Bethune-Cookman 72
Coppin State 65, Howard 57
Florida A&M; 90, Morgan State 87
Delaware State 88, N.C. A&T; 79
-! S. Carolina State 59, UMES 57
Coppin State 81, Florida A&M; 69
, Del. State 75, S.C. State 64
3' Coppin State vs. Del. State, 3 p.m.