PITTSBURGH -- There were still three seconds left as Reggie Welch hauled in the last of his team-high 15 rebounds, but the Coppin State forward could no longer contain the joy that was threatening to explode inside him. So with a mighty heave, he hoisted the ball high into the air where it seemed to levitate as the final horn sounded -- and the celebration began.
In one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA basketball tournament, Coppin State defeated sixth-ranked South Carolina, 78-65, to advance to the second round of the East Regional.
How big was this win? It marked just the third time in the history of the tournament that a No. 15 seed has defeated a second seed. It also marked the first time that a team from Baltimore -- and a team from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference -- has ever won an NCAA Division I tournament game.
"Honestly? Honestly? We had no idea it was going to be like this, that we could go against a top team and beat them by double digits," said Welch, one of two senior starters on Coppin State (22-8). "But we believed in ourselves. And we knew we could win. Hey, we just beat the giant of the [sub] region. Now we know we can play with anybody."
Based on public perception, and the so-called basketball experts, this was a game that Coppin had no chance of winning. South Carolina came from the mighty Southeastern Conference, where it was 15-1 in the regular season. The Gamecocks had twice beaten No. 5 Kentucky and had a trio of guards -- Larry Davis, BJ McKie and Melvin Watson -- that were All-SEC first team and were supposed to dominate the Coppin guards.
But those so-called experts overlooked one major intangible: this was a South Carolina team that had not played an NCAA tournament game since 1989 -- and therefore had no idea about the atmosphere and pressures of the experience. Only Davis had NCAA experience, and his came after playing for two years at North Carolina.
So when South Carolina (24-8) fell behind in the second half and saw that the crowd was beginning to rally behind Coppin, it had no come-from-behind experience in this setting to draw from. The pressure of the situation became too much to overcome.
Also the South Carolina trio of guards did not dominate as expected, with two of the three scoring below their season averages. McKie, who averaged a team-leading 17.4 points, finished with 16 and Davis (16.4) had just two.
In fact, that trio totaled just 31 points. That was 11 below Coppin's junior guard duo of Danny Singletary (22) and Antoine Brockington (20) who, since selection Sunday, had been hearing and reading how badly the South Carolina guards were going to make them look.
"Oh yeah, oh yeah, I heard it all," said Brockington, laughing. "That their guards were all this. That we couldn't hang with them because they were All-SEC. What I told Coach was 'I haven't met a guard that can check me yet.' "
And it was Brockington who set the tone early, scoring 13 of his points in the first half, which ended with Coppin -- despite shooting just 35.5 percent -- tied at 34. The Eagles were a bit erratic early, and committed nine first-half turnovers. But their aggressive defense frustrated the South Carolina guards, and forced the Gamecocks into 11 first-half turnovers -- four by Watson, who was hounded by Singletary.
The Eagles went into the locker room excited. But they were quickly brought down to earth when reminded that many lower seeds play higher seeds tough for a half -- Fairfield did it against top-seeded North Carolina Thursday -- only to get blown away.
"We knew at halftime we were in it," Welch said. "But we also knew in the second half a lot of teams lose their composure. We were concentrating on keeping our composure. We were taking it five minutes at a time."
That composure appeared lost over the first part of the second half when South Carolina opened with a 13-6 run and had its biggest lead, 47-40, after a jumper by McKie with 13: 30 left.
But a 9-2 run by Coppin tied the game at 49 after a jumper by Singletary with 9: 07 left. And when Brockington made two free throws with 7: 43 left, the Eagles had a 53-52 lead and the crowd was chanting "Let's go Eagles."
"I told the team if we make the game competitive, we could get the crowd on our side because we're the underdog," said Coppin coach Fang Mitchell.
Said South Carolina forward William Gallman: "They were hanging around and the fans started to get on their side. The fans were giving them unbelievable support."
Still, the Eagles appeared to be in trouble when All-MEAC center Terquin Mott went to the bench with his fourth foul with 6: 45 left, and Coppin trailing, 54-53.
"You have to remember, this is a team that has played with a lot of adversity without a lot of players all year," Mitchell said. "We know Turk is a tremendous player. But when we put in [reserve center] Kareem Lewis, who has done a tremendous job for us, we're not missing a lot."
And the Eagles went on a 22-9 run mainly behind Singletary (18 points in the second half) and had a 75-61 lead after two free throws by Fred Warrick with 42 seconds left. During the run, the confidence and swagger of the Gamecocks -- and their fans -- began to fade.
"At one point I started to see them distance themselves, and I could see their confidence leaving," Welch said. "I guess it's the same feeling of Mike Tyson looking in your eyes after he just knocked you out. When I looked in their faces and saw the weariness, I just wanted to give them the knockout blow."
And the Gamecocks were never able to pull themselves off the floor, suffering the embarrassment of an incredible loss.
"Without a doubt, they were the better team out there today," said South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler. "Our inability to rebound the ball [Coppin had a 39-29 advantage] hurt. We didn't get the loose balls, and they started making their shots. Their zones bothered us, and we never really got into sync."
When the final buzzer sounded -- with the ball still in the air after Welch's heave -- the Eagles ran out to center court to celebrate. For a tiny school of just over 3,000 students, a school that had to borrow a band for yesterday's game, it was an incredible achievement and one that won't be soon forgotten.
How does Coppin like wearing the glass slipper of a Cinderella? The Eagles are so happy, they'd wear the entire Cinderella outfit if they can keep on winning.
"This has to go down as one of the most major, major wins in my life," Mitchell said. "The MEAC has never won an NCAA tournament game before today. To carry that banner and do that job, it felt great."
Below are the highly seeded teams that were eliminated by lower-seeded teams in the first round of the NCAA tournament since the field was increased to 64 teams:
'86 (14) Clev. St. 83, (3) Ind. 79
(14) Ark.-LR 90, (3) ND 83
'87 (13) Xavier 70, (4) Mo. 69
'87 (14) A. Peay 68, (3) Ill. 67
(13) Rich. 72, (4) Ind. 69
'88 (14) Murray 78, (3) NCS 75
'89 (13) M. Tenn 97, (4) FSU 83
'89 (14) Siena 80, (3) Stan. 78
'90 (14) N. Iowa 74, (3) Mo. 71
(15) Rich. 73, (2) Syr. 69
'92 (13) SW La. 87, (4) Okla. 83
(14) E. Tenn 87, (3) Ariz. 80
(13) South. 93, (4) Ga. T. 78
(15) S. Clara 64, (2) Ariz. 61
(14) ODU 89, (3) Vil. 81
'95 (14) Weber St. 79, (3) MSU 72
(13) Manhat. 77, (4) Okla. 67
'96 (13) Prin. 43, (4) UCLA 41
'97 (14) UT-C 73, (3) Georgia 70
Pub Date: 3/15/97