Coppin State is one victory away from redemption. A year after they ruined their NCAA tournament hopes by losing to Morgan State in the first round of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, the top-seeded Eagles are in the MEAC championship game.
Coppin State withstood an impressive outside shooting display by Bethune-Cookman last night in the semifinals, as the Eagles answered with some long-range shots of their own. They tied a school record with 13 three-pointers, stopped a late Wildcats rally, and pulled away to an 88-75 victory at Hill Field House.
The victory, Coppin State's 17th straight, sends the Eagles (20-8) against defending MEAC champion North Carolina A&T; today. The winner automatically qualifies for the NCAA tournament. North Carolina A&T; was the last team to beat the Eagles, who dropped their first conference game two months ago and haven't lost since.
"The job is not finished. We understood it would take three games to be successful in this tournament, and we've only won two," Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell said. "I'm real pleased. I'm proud of how well our guys are playing together and focused on one purpose. We knew nothing was going to be handed to us tonight."
The Wildcats (12-16) got Coppin State's attention early and often, particularly from the outside. Guard Latroy Strong scored a game-high 27 points, shooting 6-for-11 from beyond the arc. Forward Jaime Grant complemented him with 17 points, with five three-pointers.
But the Wildcats, who made 10 of their first 16 attempts to take a 24-17 lead nine minutes into the game, could not overcome the Eagles' defensive tenacity and offensive balance down the stretch.
As they have done so often, seniors Sidney Goodman and Stephen Stewart stepped up to deliver the last words. Stewart, who scored 20 points and grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds, started a 7-0 run that gave the Eagles an 81-69 lead with five minutes to go. Stewart banked in a 12-footer and followed that with a layup to spark the run.
Goodman then punctuated a superb night with a three-pointer to make it 81-69. Seconds later, his two free throws gave the Eagles an 86-71 lead. He finished with a team-high 23 points and added six rebounds and three assists.
"We know everyone was going to come at us. Bethune-Cookman didn't quit," Goodman said. "This is tournament time. Time to bear down. That loss last year made us a better team. It made each of us aware of how important it is to come out and play hard every night."
As well as the Wildcats shot from the outside, Coppin State was better, inside and out. Stewart and senior Michael Thomas (nine points, six rebounds) controlled the paint. And six players had three-pointers. Five players made at least two threes.
Senior forward Tariq Saunders, coming off an excellent shooting performance in the quarterfinals, made four three-pointers to account for most of his 16 points. Saunders also grabbed nine rebounds.
The Eagles also were the picture of patience and teamwork on offense. They recorded 18 assists and committed only eight turnovers. Point guard Allen Watson was restricted to 18 minutes because of foul trouble, but managed seven points and a game-high six assists.
In the other semifinal, a rematch of last year's MEAC title game, defending champion North Carolina A&T; spotted South Carolina State a 12-point halftime lead before charging back to claim a 70-60 victory at Hill Field House.
Guard Phillip Allen led the Aggies with 20 points, including 14 in the second half, and his jumper with 3:12 left gave North Carolina A&T; (14-14) the lead for good at 59-58.
All-MEAC first-team forward Derrick Patterson led the Bulldogs (15-13) with 22 points and eight rebounds, although Patterson sat with four fouls for six crucial minutes in the second half. When he returned, North Carolina A&T; had cut a 10-point deficit to 52-50 with 7:13 left. The Bulldogs managed eight points and two baskets the rest of the way.