NIT gives Coppin coach, players a homecoming


Ever since he began coaching basketball at Coppin State nine years ago, Fang Mitchell has tried unsuccessfully to schedule a game in Philadelphia.

Mitchell's attachment to the city runs deep. He was born in Philadelphia and raised in nearby Camden, N.J., where some of his family still lives. He has done the bulk of his Coppin State recruiting in the Philly-Camden corridor. He maintains a home in West Depford, N.J.

Leave it to the National Invitation Tournament selection committee to give Mitchell what he wanted.

One year after getting snubbed by the NIT, Coppin State is headed to the 32-team tournament for the first time since 1991.

Coppin State (20-9) will travel to Philadelphia tomorrow night, when it will face St. Joseph's (17-11) at Alumni Memorial Field House.

"Just the fact that we're playing is special. Getting the opportunity to go to Philadelphia makes it more worthwhile. Philly has been good to us," Mitchell said.

"After last year, we didn't know what to expect. I thought we sent in better credentials last year, other than the fact that we beat LSU and Ball State this year. I'm real happy for the players, because they've worked so hard. I didn't want to deal with another year of no reward for working hard."

By qualifying for the NIT, Coppin State's six seniors -- who all come from the Philadelphia-Camden area and are led by two-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year Stephen Stewart -- get another chance to perform together.

Stewart, a Philadelphia native, was last seen lying on the floor of Morgan State's Hill Field House, agonizing over Coppin State's 66-64 loss to North Carolina A&T; in the MEAC tournament championship game. The loss cost the Eagles their third NCAA tournament berth and first since 1993.

It also marked the second straight year that Coppin State ruined a terrific regular-season run by stumbling in the postseason. Last year, the Eagles went undefeated against the MEAC during the regular season, only to lose to Morgan State in the MEAC tournament's first round. Making matters worse, the Eagles, having won 16 straight games before the Morgan loss, were the last team cut by the NIT selection committee.

This year, the Eagles went 15-1 against the MEAC in the regular season. They earned the top seed again in the MEAC tournament, only to see their 17-game winning streak fall in the title game.

"We'd definitely rather be playing in the field of 64, but I'll take the field of 32. The music is still playing, and we still have some dancing to do," said Stewart, who will feel quite comfortable facing the Hawks at St. Joe's. He knows most of their players.

"I work out with them and play against them during the summer. We match up well against each other," Stewart said. "We've always wanted to play in Philly. I'm real excited to get the opportunity."

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