Reese gives Coppin healthy dose of grit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At times, she felt the team was against her and the coach was against her. All the time, she knew her body was against her. Antoinette Reese couldn't win. So she wouldn't try any more. She wouldn't return to Coppin State.

It almost would have been forgivable to quit. A knee injury nearly ended her basketball career once. A chronic blood disorder nearly did it once more. She persevered anyway, but so did her anemia. During a routine run around campus in preparation for her senior season, she collapsed onto the pavement.

That was October, and that's about when things started to go Reese's way for the first time in her collegiate career. A series of blood transfusions after her fall have reawakened her body's potential and soul. Not only has she turned over a new leaf on offense, where she has raised her scoring average from 3.9 points last season to 12.1 this season, she's also forcing turnovers like few other women in Division I.

Her 3.6 steals a game tie her for sixth in the nation and spark a defense that forces close to 11 a game. It is those results, coach Derek Brown said, that signify Coppin's determination to improve on last season's 11-18 mark.

As Reese says without a doubt, "We're all going to the NCAA tournament."

Reese, 22, has a reason to lead, and her teammates have a reason to follow her. Since undergoing two transfusions at Maryland General Hospital over a couple of days, Reese has gained respite from anemia, a condition that impedes red blood cells from replenishing themselves with oxygen.

"[Her return] has had a great impact on us," said redshirt junior guard Denita Plain, Reese's longtime roommate. "We are really rallying around her."

For the first time in her collegiate career, Reese isn't suffering from back and leg spasms, and she's bouncing back quickly from minor ailments that in the past would have lingered on.

Now, she said, "I can play ball all day."

Her efforts are not wasted in trying to pick herself up; instead she's picking her team up, constantly slapping her hands, handing out high-fives and doing what she does best, defense.

The 5-foot-11 Reese has become a stealing machine. In a span of six games from Dec. 10 to Jan. 3, the guard/forward accumulated 39 steals to jump among the nation's leaders.

"Since [the transfusions], she's a ball of fire," Brown said. "She comes back from the little bumps in the road. Now her athleticism is shining through."

So are the Lady Eagles (12-9), who have won six of their past seven games. They moved into third place in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference at 8-4 with last night's 62-60 overtime win at Bethune-Cookman. As always, Reese has tried to do her part by hand.

On Dec. 20 against St. Peter's, Reese stole the ball eight times, including twice in the final 20 seconds as Coppin State pulled out a 59-56 victory.

On Jan. 3 against Florida A&M;, Reese tied the Division I season mark with nine steals. Her steal and layup in the final six minutes put the Eagles ahead to stay in a 79-73 win.

Manhattan's Donnette Reed and Texas A&M;'s Toccara Williams are the only others to record nine steals. Reese has done it twice, with nine on Dec. 29 against La Salle.

"I have a strong attitude on defense," Reese said. "I'm not going to let you shoot it or pass it, so the only thing left I'm going to do is take it."

When Reese arrived at Coppin State four years ago, she believed she could instill a sense of success in the program after winning three city titles with H.D. Woodson High in Washington. The atmosphere of inclusiveness on the Eagles' roster that drew Reese to Baltimore, however, disappeared almost immediately.

It didn't help that she wasn't around. Once her classes, practices and games ended, Reese left for Washington. She commuted daily from her mother's home to Coppin State.

"Everything was about the individual," Reese said, and she fed right into the selfishness of the team. Her teammates rubbed her the wrong way, so she tried to stay away.

"She felt like an outcast," said her mother, Barbara Walker.

Reese would regularly begin practice running, her punishment for being late. Teammates developed her nickname, Smiley, out of sarcasm.

"My coach thought I had a bad attitude for three years," Reese said.

Reese's anemia, dormant until she attended Coppin State, began to compound her troubles. At first, no one knew why her back would hurt, why she couldn't always give Brown her best. Her effort sometimes left him exasperated.

"I thought a lot of times she was dogging it out there," Brown said.

Reese showed otherwise at the end of her sophomore season at UMES. She jumped to a stop on a drive, her left knee buckled, and she fell to the floor. She missed the rest of the game, but she played three more times on what she considered was just a bad sprain.

Reese only relented when doctors discovered two torn ligaments in the knee. Surgery in May 2002 revealed a recent tear of her medial collateral ligament, most likely suffered at UMES. She said doctors told her that her anterior cruciate ligament had been damaged for some time, and she has no idea when it snapped.

The knee was further ravaged by a hole in the kneecap. The meniscus, the cartilage that provided cushion to the knee joint, was 90 percent gone.

Doctors told Reese that her basketball career was likely doomed. They didn't know how stubborn she was.

"Everything the coaches told her not to do, she did it," Walker said.

With a screw in her knee, Reese returned to Washington and worked out most every day, without the benefit of a trainer. She ditched the crutches after two days. By June, she was playing pickup games. When she returned to practice for the 2002-03 season, she was beating her teammates in sprint drills.

What she couldn't get away from was the wear and tear of anemia. Her leg and back spasms increased in severity, causing her much more pain than her surgically repaired knee.

Reese's finicky diet - she frowns on eating red meat - was depriving her of iron, a key building block to the oxygen-carrying component in red blood cells, hemoglobin. A test Reese took at one point her junior season revealed that her hemoglobin level was nearly two-thirds below average.

"Doctors worried that she would drop dead on the court," said Reese's roommate, Plain.

Under a close watch, Reese played on, starting in 19 of 28 games. She could cope with the physical stress, but the mental stress didn't abate.

Over the summer of 2003, Reese broke up with her fiancM-i, then the relationship with her mom became uneven. She had just about had enough with everything, school included. Eventually she put those thoughts behind her, getting to campus a few days after the start of class.

"She could've quit," said Walker, a single mother of four. "But there's no quttin' in this house."

Since her transfusions, Reese has been infused with confidence. She's living on-campus this season for the first time. She talks to her mom by phone every day. She's grateful that Brown didn't give up on her.

Now that she's healthy, Smiley is in good spirits and has big plans.

Reese said she got offers to play at universities such as Connecticut, Duke and Vanderbilt. She didn't join with any of them, so now she wants to beat one of them.

The only way she can do that is to win the MEAC tournament next month, so the Eagles can qualify for the NCAA tournament. She has played one minute in the MEAC tournament so far - mostly because of injury - but, once again, Reese isn't deterred by the thought of breaking new ground.

"We're going to win the [MEAC] tournament. We're going to play one of the No. 1 [seeded] schools. We will really upset somebody," she said. "We really will."

Stealing the show

After averaging one steal over her first five games this season, Coppin State's Antoinette Reese raised her average to 3.9, which tied her for second among NCAA Division I women in early January. She did that by recording 39 steals over a half-dozen games. (She's currently tied for sixth at 3.6 a game.) Here is a closer look at her outburst:

Date ..................... Opponent ............. Steals

Dec. 10 .............. Morgan State ............... 4

Dec. 13 .............. Drexel .......................... 4

Dec. 20 ............. St. Peter's ................... 8

Dec. 29 .............. La Salle ....................... 9*

Dec. 30 .............. Providence .................. 5

Jan. 3 ................ Florida A&M; ................. 9*

*-Tied Division I season high

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