Coppin State's unlikely run still has legs

The Baltimore Sun

RALEIGH, N.C.-- --When the final buzzer sounded, on the far end of the court, Reggie Holmes was sprawled alone on the hardwood, completely stunned. He couldn't believe his Morgan State team had just lost. The rest of the country, at least those tuning in on television, was also in a state of disbelief. But they weren't thinking about Morgan.

As the party continued at the other end of the court - as players in blue and yellow jerseys piled on top of each other, high like a Dagwood sandwich - the most unlikely of improbabilities had just unfolded. If we're being honest here, who really ever thought Coppin State had a chance?

But the public-address announcer's voice boomed. He made it official: "The Battle of Baltimore is over. For now." Coppin topped Morgan, its cross-town rival, 62-60, in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title game, putting a bold exclamation point on the most amazing turnaround in college basketball.

Sure, these Eagles might be short on experience and might be even shorter on talent. But they will carry more momentum into the NCAA tournament than any of the other 64 teams. The word moved quickly out of Raleigh last night. This year, Cinderella has feathers. This year, Cinderella has cornrows. This year - you just wait and see - Cinderella wears a Coppin jersey.

Who would have thought that just a couple of months ago? The Eagles had lost 17 of 18 games at one point this season. In fact, they will end with a losing record. Their fans, despite a late-season turnaround, chartered a bus to the MEAC tournament and had made accommodations for just a one-night visit to Raleigh. And now they're all going dancing.

Coach Fang Mitchell called it a "tremendous journey," and that's an understatement.

"A lot of people could have quit in that situation," he said of his players' early struggles. "These guys didn't quit. I was really proud of them for having that fight in them ... even though it seemed that the season was over for them."

There's no need to wait for the NCAA tournament brackets to be released tonight. Let's put it on record: Coppin will be the one high seed that no one wants to face. And why would you? The Eagles entered their conference tournament riding a magic carpet. They've won 12 of their past 13 games. They entered the MEAC tournament as the No. 7 seed, but that number never mattered. They kept fighting. The Eagles won four games by a total of just six points. Each night, Mitchell said, it felt like his team had just won a title.

"We were life and death," Mitchell said. "Last night we were in Afghanistan, and today we're in Iraq. We were in a battle. That's all we knew. So when we got out of there alive, we were happy."

As exciting as the first three games had been, even they didn't prepare anyone for the drama in the championship. From the opening tip, it felt like a battle of prize fighters, each team willing to exchange haymakers until the buzzer sounded.

The score was tied eight times, and there were 12 lead changes. With every shot, every drive and every leap to the rafters, there was a season's worth of work. In each movement, a career's worth of hopes. For 40 minutes, the subtle was powerful; the nuanced, meaningful.

They kept trading blows until the final minutes. Boubacar Coly, Morgan's solid big man, pulled down a rebound, only to have it ripped from his hands by Coppin's Tywain McKee, who promptly laid the ball in. Coppin led, 57-52.

At the other end of the court, Jermaine Bolden cut through the lane, spinning left and sinking a short jumper. With the foul. 57-55. McKee hit another three - his sixth of the night. 60-55. Then Holmes marched back down and hit one for Morgan. 60-58.

With only 31 seconds left, Coly blocked McKee's shot in the paint, and Morgan's Bolden hit two free throws to tie the score. 60 apiece.

With no shot clock, Coppin was playing for the final shot. And in a big fight, you go for the knockout.

Ten seconds remained. Everyone in RBC Center knew McKee would get the final shot. He was isolated at the top of the key, the Bears' Marquise Kately between him and the hoop. Seven seconds. McKee juked left. A crossover. Five seconds. Just eight feet from the hoop. The ball floated off McKee's fingertips. It was good. One final blow.

The Eagles celebrated, but not a single one of them was really shocked. Not like the rest of us. What most of the country learned last night, Coppin players have believed for a while.

"How can they not believe with a leader like Tywain McKee?" asked Mitchell, whose junior guard finished with 33 points.

Count Mitchell as an early convert. In fact, he brought five finely-tailored suits to Raleigh, and he planned on wearing each one. The Eagles head back to Baltimore now, and Mitchell has just enough time to hit the dry cleaners. You wouldn't have guessed this just a couple of weeks ago, but Coppin has a lot more basketball left to play.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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