NORFOLK, Va. -- Though 28 games, the Coppin State Eagles kept their emotions in check, even as they maintained their perfection in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference by methodically conquering one league opponent after another. But the clock ticked down in the league's tournament championship game yesterday, they could hold back no longer.
Amid the chant, "we're going to the show, we're going to the show!" Coppin State capped a perfect conference season with an 80-53 win over Delaware State yesterday that gave the Eagles the MEAC tournament title and the school's second berth in the NCAA basketball tournament.
In a season that started with a predicted seventh-place finish in the league and modest expectations at best, Coppin (22-8) simply wore down the bigger Delaware State team (12-16) to finish with a perfect 19-0 record against MEAC opponents.
"I just can't describe this feeling," said Coppin State guard Sidney Goodman, who scored 16 points yesterday and earned a spot along with teammates Stephen Stewart and Michael Thomas on the all-tournament team. "We're going to the big show! I've been watching it on TV ever since I was little, and now I'm going to get an opportunity to play in it."
It was an awesome defensive and offensive surge in the second half by Coppin that broke open a close game and extended the nation's longest winning streak among Division I teams to 16 games. With the game tied at 42 after a jumper by Delaware State's Hijr Sabree with 15:04 left, the Eagles put together a 33-4 run during the next 12:44 to turn the game into a rout. During that drought, Delaware State -- at No. 7 the lowest-seeded team to appear in a MEAC title game since 1979 -- hit just two of 17 field-goal attempts.
"We were just tired," said a hoarse Delaware State coach Jeff Jones, whose team upset second-seeded North Carolina A&T; and third-seeded South Carolina State to reach the finals. "Their depth was a factor. Had they played with just seven players like we did, we could have won the game. But we just ran out of gas, and they had too many bodies."
Depth is what set Coppin State apart from the rest of the league, and sets the Eagles apart from the 1990 team that went to the NCAAs. That team had a strong starting five, led by shooting guard Reggie Isaac and current Washington Bullets forward Larry Stewart, but had just two key contributors from the bench. This season coach Fang Mitchell could look to 10 players, and at times he needed every one of them.
"This team is just not one individual -- we try them all and try to find the five that mesh," Mitchell said. "Once we find the combination, we stay with it."
Mitchell had to do a lot of searching yesterday, especially in the first half when Delaware State's aggressive zone took away Coppin's inside game. With 7:02 left in the half Delaware State had its biggest lead, 22-15, and had held Coppin without a field goal for more than seven minutes.
But by the half, Coppin had a 36-30 lead sparked by defensive pressure that limited Delaware State to one field goal in the last 10 minutes of the half.
"The zone took away our inside," said Stewart, who scored 24 points and capped a season in which he won the MEAC's Newcomer of the Year award with the tournament's Most Valuable Player trophy. "But for us, it was just a matter of time."
When the time came, the points came in a hurry. Delaware State started strong in the second half, and tied the game at 42. But two free throws by Stewart started the huge second-half run that broke the game open.
Coppin was leading 56-46 when sophomore guard Marcus Robinson -- just one of many productive, but unheralded players -- delivered the finishing blow in hitting two three-pointers at the start of an 19-0 run that gave Coppin a 75-46 lead that officially started the celebration along the Coppin sideline.
By game's end several Delaware State players were so fatigued that they could barely make it down the court.
"[Delaware State guard] Andrew Miles has played close to 40 minutes a game in the tournament, so the game plan was to put as much pressure on them to try to wear them down," Mitchell said. "I was confident that they would get tired."
Delaware State did, and Coppin came away with its 20th win in its last 21 games.
Coppin's only blemish in 1993 was a 71-56 loss at American University on Jan. 20. Other than that the young team (there are no seniors)that was picked to finish seventh in the MEAC in a preseason coaches poll played solid -- if not spectacular -- basketball.
"You need a lot of luck to go through a season like that, and a lot of consistency," Jones said. "Those kids are very, very unselfish. They don't worry about statistics or about being a star, all they worry about is winning."
All of which makes Mitchell savor this team's winning the tournament title that much more. Talent was evident during the Stewart-Isaac era, but the togetherness is what sets this team apart from the other.
"This is a wonderful group, a special group of people," Mitchell said. "They defy the odds, because today you just don't get a group of kids who pull for each other as this group does.
Coppin will find out on Sunday who they will play in the NCAA tournament, which begins on March 18. Coppin's only other appearance in 1990 resulted in a 70-48, first-round loss to Syracuse.
"This is my first championship ever, but it's not over yet for us," said Stewart, whose older brother, Larry, was in attendance. "We're going into the NCAA tournament looking for a win, not to just make an appearance."
NOTES: No team seeded lower than fourth has ever won a MEAC title. . . . After posting a 34-26 record in its first four years in the MEAC, Coppin has won 51 of 63 MEAC games (regular-season and tournament games) . . . Game was the first tournament meeting ever between the two teams.
+(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
Coppin State 80, Del. State 53