SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell spent yesterday scrambling to get his team a flight back to Baltimore. Ever the optimist, Mitchell had planned on spending a long weekend in this snowy city.
L "You know me," Mitchell said. "We expected to play [today]."
But Coppin's second trip to the NCAA tournament ended just like the first, this time with a 93-66 loss on Friday to No. 2 seed Cincinnati in a first-round East Regional game at the Carrier Dome. The defeat ended what had been the nation's longest winning streak at 16 games and ruined Coppin's bid to becoming the first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference team to win an NCAA Tournament game.
"I'm crushed," Mitchell said. "Even though I thought we played hard as long as we could -- it's still a loss. And any time you lose, you can't be happy."
Mitchell is unhappy with the loss, but delighted in the accomplishments of a youthful team that at the start of the season could not have expected to be playing in the NCAA Tournament. Not only did the Eagles play in the tournament, they did so as a No. 15 seed (the only MEAC team to ever be seeded higher than 16) which resulted from a 19-0 league record.
"I can't be too upset because these guys just over-achieved all year long," Mitchell said. "But I'm at a point now where I can't say they over-achieved anymore. They just gave what they had out there. If anything, I'm just disappointed for them because I know how much they wanted to win this. But I do think we learned something from playing out here."
Strength was the main lesson for the Eagles. After playing with Cincinnati for nearly 30 minutes, the Bearcats used their superior strength and athleticism against the smaller Coppin players. Cincinnati had a commanding 48-29 rebounding edge, with many of those boards coming simply by wrestling the ball away from the Coppin players.
"We learned that when Fang says go into the weight room, you need to go in the weight room to lift weights and do the things that are going to make us a stronger team and a better team," Mitchell said. "It was very important to be able to see that you can play on that level. But you have to do the things that will allow you to play 40 minutes."
When Coppin did play on the level of Cincinnati, they played with confidence. After trailing 7-0 at the outset of the game and by 11 points with
12:19 left in the half, the Eagles responsed with a 16-2 run over the next 4 minutes, 15 seconds to take a 27-24 lead. Suddenly most of the 14,287 fans who were expecting to see a clinic by the Bearcats were pulling for the underdogs and a roar of "Let's go Coppin, Let's go Coppin" filled the Carrier Dome.
"Wasn't that beautiful?" Mitchell said of the crowd reaction. "It was a tribute to the team with their hustle, and the crowd appreciated it. I was shocked that they came in not really in awe."
And in rallying, Coppin gained the respect of the Cincinnati players.
"After we went up 7-0 everyone thought they would just lay down and die," said Cincinnati forward Terry Nelson. "They showed a lot of heart and they woke us up. A lot of guys got a little jolt."
And that jolt woke up Cincinnati, which won in a rout. Despite getting just seven points from guard Nick Van Exel, the Bearcats shot 56.5 percent from the floor -- their second-best shooting game this season -- with many of their field goals coming on layups.
"When you're at a major level and allowed to play aggressive all season long and you come into a game like this, you don't have to change anything," Mitchell said. "We have to step it up because we're not accustomed to doing that."
Perhaps Coppin will get an opportunity to adapt to that style next year. Everyone returns, which should make the Eagles good enough to repeat. Stephen Stewart (20 points, 10 rebounds), Keith Carmichael (16 points) and Goodman (15 points) all played adequately against Cincinnati and with solid players such as Tariq Saunders and the improving Michael Thomas returning, the Eagles will improve.
"It was just a pleasure working with them this year," Mitchell said. "And I'm looking forward to having that opportunity again next year."