Coppin goes out with a whimper to S. Fla., 75-59


TAMPA, Fla. -- Coppin State's Fang Mitchell recounted every zone defense he tried against South Florida last night, and, for a moment, he sounded more like a geometry teacher than a basketball coach.

A 2-3 zone. A 3-2 zone. The 1-3-1. The 2-2-1 half-court trap. A matchup zone. And, as he acknowledged after the host Bulls pounded the Eagles, 75-59, in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament, absolutely none of them worked.

South Florida point guard Chucky Atkins solved the Coppin State defensive mazes, scoring 16 points and handing out 11 assists, and Jerome Robinson scored 24 points, propelling the Bulls into the NIT quarterfinals against Marquette, a 70-61 winner over St. Bonaventure last night.

The Eagles, who have six seniors and started five, finished a 21-10 season in disappointing style. Guard Keith Carmichael said afterward that if Coppin State was going to lose, he would have preferred it be on a buzzer-beater, somebody throwing in an off-balance shot, the Eagles hanging on until the last moment.

Instead, they fell behind early and trailed by as many as 22 in the second half. Too many bad shots, taken too quickly. Too few rebounds. Too much South Florida.

"This," Carmichael said, "was not Coppin State basketball."

The Eagles are not, as their coaching staff understood, a team without weakness. Vulnerable on the boards, they needed to keep the bigger and stronger Bulls from dominating the rebounding.

They did not; South Florida totaled 45 rebounds, Coppin State 29. As usual, Stephen Stewart made the most of his burly 6-foot-6 frame inside with seven rebounds, but he was no match for 6-6 Jesse Salters (13 rebounds) or 6-9 South Florida center Donzel Rush, who had 10.

"I think it was probably the hardest-working team we've played against," Mitchell said of the Bulls (18-11), who were 5-7 in the Metro Conference.

The Eagles had to convert enough of their many three-point attempts to stay close, especially on the Bulls' raucous home court.

They did not; Coppin State hit five of 27 three-pointers, 18.5 percent, about half of their percentage prior to last night. Sidney Goodman finished with a team-high 16 points, but was 0-for-6 from beyond the arc. Backcourt mate Carmichael added 11 points on 3-for-11 shooting, all from three-point range.

The Eagles, a smaller team, needed to be patient on offense, running the clock down and keeping the faster Bulls from getting into their transition game.

This they did not do. Coppin State often shot in the first 10 seconds of its possessions, and by the second half, the Eagles were being swept up in a running of the Bulls.

The Eagles had to confuse South Florida with their changing defenses, the zones altered from possession to possession, even in transition.

They tried all that. Unfortunately, Atkins always seemed to recognize the change and find the holes in the zone. "He did a tremendous job operating our team against those changes," said South Florida coach Bobby Paschal.

The Bulls' first spurt came six minutes into the game. On the first possession out of a timeout, Atkins looked right and faked right. The Coppin defense shifted to the right. Atkins threw left, to Rush for a layup.

Next trip down, Atkins dropped in a three-pointer. Then another jumper. On the other end, the Eagles were settling for long bombs.

This is how passive Coppin State's attack was: With 7:44 remaining in the first half, the Bulls had not yet been charged with a team foul.

But coming out of a timeout, the Eagles redirected their offense, pounding the ball inside 10 of their last 11 possessions of the half, controlled the tempo, and briefly, the game. Coppin State reduced South Florida's lead to six by halftime, at 40-34.

The Eagles commanded those eight minutes. The other 32, however, were a problem.

Atkins and Robinson buried Coppin State in the second half. With the score 52-45 with 13:45 remaining, the Bulls went on a 19-4 run. Robinson hit a three from the right side -- barking in the face of Coppin's Kyle Locke after the ball went down -- and then Rush finished off a break with a slam, pulling himself up on the rim. The coup de grace.

After the game, Mitchell called the seniors together and thanked them for four good years, for taking the Coppin State program to a new level.

Over the past four seasons, the Eagles are 80-39. They won the MEAC regular-season title three times, going 47-1 in the process. Played in the NCAA tournament in 1993, and won in the NIT this year, beating St. Joseph's in the first round last week.

Stewart laughed thinking back to their freshman year. "We were all knuckleheads," said Stewart, a two-time MEAC Player of the Year. "We all wanted to fight authority.

"We did OK, though."

This last game, though. . . . The Eagles would like a do-over.

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