PITTSBURGH -- All Coppin State guard Antoine Brockington wanted was a shot. Trailing Texas by one with four seconds left and a berth in the Sweet 16 at stake, all Brockington wanted was a shot. It didn't even have to be by him. Get off the shot and let the chips fall where they may.
But as Coppin's inbounds play developed before his eyes, Brockington was left dropping to his knees in disbelief. The shot attempt that could have extended the story of this year's NCAA basketball tournament never happened.
Texas guard DeJuan Vazquez stole Coppin's inbounds pass with three seconds left to preserve the Longhorns' 82-81 victory yesterday and deny the Eagles the opportunity to become the first 15th-seeded team in NCAA tournament history to advance to the Sweet 16.
"When that happened, my heart broke," said Brockington, who pounded the floor after Fred Warrick's pass from under the basket, intended for Danny Singletary, was picked off around the foul line. "It was unbelievable. We wanted to win this one so badly. When we beat [No. 2 seed] South Carolina, people said it was a fluke. We wanted to win this so bad, to show everybody it wasn't a fluke."
Even though they lost, a nation of basketball fans found out that this team is no fluke. In fact, the 1997 NCAA tournament will long be remembered for the three days when an entire city seemed to jump on the bandwagon of a tiny, historically black school from Baltimore.
With the capacity crowd of 17,509 fans -- many of whom likely had never heard of Coppin before Friday -- behind them, the Eagles (22-9) rallied from a poor start and a 12-point, second-half deficit to put themselves into a position to win the game. They rattled the Longhorns (18-11), made one incredible shot after another -- especially Brockington, who finished with a game-high 27 points -- and did about everything they could do to win the game.
Except get that last shot off.
"They are one of the few teams all year that attacked us, pressed us, and maybe were quicker than us in two or three positions," said Texas coach Tom Penders. "When you see a team like South Carolina get hammered by a team like this, you say, 'What is this, a fluke?' I watched the tape, and it was just a flat-out whipping by a very good basketball team. Hopefully for them, it gives them a lot more respect than they're getting."
At the game's start, it appeared that Coppin would just go quietly. The Longhorns started the game by hitting 10 of their first 13 shots, jumping out to an eight-point lead. The Eagles turned the ball over often, and attempted to do what they could ill afford -- run with Texas. It didn't help that Brockington, with 10 points over the first 7: 09, picked up his second foul with 11: 46 left and sat out the rest of the half.
The Eagles did scrap back to within three. But a scoreless final three minutes put Coppin behind 49-39 at the half.
In the locker room at the break, anyone within earshot of the arena could hear coach Fang Mitchell's voice as he let loose.
"It was a sorry first half," Mitchell said. "I was trying to find out myself which team that was out there. But I had to give it to my guys. Even as they were sleepwalking, they were still down by 10."
Said Coppin forward Reggie Welch: "Whenever you play helter-skelter, Fang's going to be Fang. We were on an emotional high. We wanted to get to the Sweet 16 so bad we thought we could have a shootout with Texas."
No, what the Eagles needed to do was turn this into a scrap. Press. Gamble. They forced the Longhorns into five turnovers over the first five minutes of the second half. And after Singletary (six steals) picked Vazquez, scored and got fouled with 15: 31 left, the Eagles were within 53-49 after he converted the three-point play. And when the crowd went berserk, the Longhorns had to feel as if they were playing in Lubbock against Big 12 rival Texas Tech.
"It gave us an emotional high," Mitchell said. "And once we got over our drunkenness, I think we started playing. I think the crowd was so important to how we played."
Suddenly, everything Coppin tossed toward the basket went in. After rebounding a miss, Brockington (11-for-15, including 5-for-6 from three-point range) hit an off-balance, off-the-wrong-foot, 16-foot jumper that pulled the Eagles within 53-51 with 14: 39 left. Welch then dribbled up court, flicked a dribble behind his back and hit all net on a short jumper, tying the game at 53.
That was all part of a 14-2 run by the Eagles. And when Singletary hit two free throws with 12: 23 left, Coppin had a 58-55 lead -- and the crowd really smelled an upset.
"We've played in front of big crowds before," Texas guard Al Coleman said. "But when Coppin State did something great, it was crazy."
Texas recovered, and Reggie Freeman -- visibly ticked off when Coppin center Terquin Mott told a teammate, "We got him locked up" -- took over. Freeman had 17 of his 22 points in the second half. He had 15 points -- including two big three-pointers -- during a 20-9 run. And after Kris Clack converted a three-point play with 5: 17 left, the Texas lead was 75-67.
But Coppin stayed composed, and kept up the pressure. Brockington had back-to-back dunks, the second pulling the Eagles within 75-73. They fell behind by five before Welch, after pleading with Mitchell to get back into the game, banked in an off-balance three-pointer with 57 seconds left, getting the Eagles within 80-78.
After a trapped Freeman drew Mott's fifth foul in the backcourt and hit two free throws, Brockington hit a deep three-pointer with 42 seconds left to keep the Eagles within reach. They forced a Texas turnover, leaving it all to one shot. Singletary drove to the basket, but his shot was blocked out of bounds by Freeman. That left four seconds and the one shot.
One shot that would never happen.
"Whenever you have an opportunity to win a game like that and you can't get it off, it's heartbreaking," Welch said. "They stepped up and made a great defensive play."
And ended a most incredible run. But even though Coppin lost, its legacy here will remain for a long time.
"I think now a lot of people, when they mention Coppin State, they'll say that team that beat South Carolina and almost beat Texas," Welch said. "We knew we weren't going to get the recognition unless we got here and did well. We didn't want to be a 15 seed that came out, got some TV time, got some meal money and went home."
Pub Date: 3/17/97