The season is still young for the Coppin State men’s basketball team, but after Sunday’s afternoon’s 81-77 win against visiting Norfolk State at the Physical Education Complex in Baltimore, Dejuan Clayton was prepared to make a declaration about him and his teammates.
“I think we’re great,” the redshirt senior point guard said. “We’re in first place now, and I think we proved it today.”
Sunday’s victory capped a weekend sweep for the Eagles, who improved to 6-9 overall and 5-1 in the North Division of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and have won two straight over the Spartans after losing the previous 14 meetings. More importantly, they created some space between them and Norfolk State (8-6, 3-3) and Morgan State (7-4, 2-2).
That development did not escape coach Juan Dixon’s attention.
“For us to be in a position where we could separate ourselves in the North Division by getting two wins, it means a lot,” the former Maryland star said. “The guys were competing, they executed really well, they made shots, and we felt confident coming into this weekend. Norfolk State, they’re a very good basketball team. They’re well-coached, they’re tough, and they execute really well. Our guys got stops down the stretch when it really mattered.”
Coppin State’s diversity was on display Sunday. Clayton registered game highs in both points (22) and assists (nine), but he was joined by four other players in double figures. Redshirt junior center Yuat Alok had 18 points and eight rebounds, redshirt senior shooting guard Anthony Tarke compiled 13 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and two blocks, senior shooting guard Koby Thomas finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, and freshman shooting guard Nendah Tarke totaled 10 points and four rebounds.
“I think we’ve got a lot of potential, but I just got here,” said Alok, a TCU transfer playing in his fourth game for the Eagles. “It’s perfect. It’s coming together, and it’s coming at the right time.”
Just as it did in Saturday’s 81-71 victory, Coppin State’s offense flourished in the first half. The team shot a robust 70.4% (19-for-27) from the field in the first half and 66.7% (10-for-15) from 3-point range en route to a 50-37 advantage at halftime. And when Alok splashed down a mid-range jumper just 13 seconds into the second half, the Eagles would enjoy a 15-point lead, their largest of the game.
But after Thomas converted one of two free throws to give Coppin State a 59-47 advantage with 13:33 remaining, the offense ground to a halt, going scoreless over the next 4:39. The Spartans proved opportunistic, scoring 13 unanswered points.
When sophomore shooting guard Daryl Anderson drained a 3-pointer to cap that 13-0 run, he gave the Norfolk State a 60-59 lead with 9:13 remaining — their first since the 9:05 mark of the first half, when they led 26-25.
But Clayton hit a layup and made the ensuing free throw to complete the three-point play and help Coppin State regain the advantage at 62-60 with 8:54 left. And after junior forward Chris Ford made one of two free throws 25 seconds later, Alok nailed a 3-pointer for a 65-61 Eagles advantage with 8:18 remaining.
Coppin State’s ability to respond to several comeback attempts by the Spartans would become a theme for the rest of the game. After Ford slammed home a dunk to draw Norfolk State into a 67-67 tie with 5:09 remaining, Thomas earned a foul and sank two free throws, and Clayton made a layup to give the Eagles a four-point cushion with 5:49 left.
When redshirt junior shooting guard Jalen Hawkins hit a layup to close the gap to 71-69 with 4:09 remaining, Anthony Tarke sank a 3-pointer 10 seconds later. And after the Spartans scored four straight points, Thomas drove the right side of the lane and drew a goaltending call on Ford to give Coppin State a 76-73 lead with 2:04 left.
“We preach it every day – mental fortitude and being tough in situations like that,” Dixon said of the players’ ability to answer Norfolk State’s spurts. “That felt like a MEAC tournament type of environment. … Our guys stayed poised, and they stayed confident, and they believed that they can come down and make a shot on the offensive end and that we could get stops on the defensive end.”
Trailing 78-75 with less than 20 seconds left in regulation, the Spartans had the ball, but Hawkins found himself in the right corner after picking up his dribble. His pass backwards to Anderson was off target, allowing Clayton to swoop in for the steal and forcing Anderson to foul Clayton to prevent an easy breakaway layup.
Clayton made one of two free throws with 10.3 seconds remaining, but fouled senior guard Mustafa Lawrence on a 3-point attempt from the left wing. Fortunately for the Eagles, Lawrence missed the second of his three free throws with 4.9 seconds left, Clayton was fouled on the inbounds play, and he converted both free throws with 1.5 seconds remaining.
In the final 2:51, Norfolk State scored just four points, missed four of five shots, and committed two turnovers. Dixon was pleased with his players’ defensive effort down the stretch.
“That’s heart, that’s will, and we got stops,” he said. “I feel as though at times, we’re not as aggressive in executing what we would like them to do on the defensive end on every possession. But our guys showed that when it’s time to get a stop, they get stops. It shows the confidence they have in one another and the belief they have in our principles and most importantly, the belief they have in their own brothers, making sure that we have each other’s backs.”
In the two-game series against the Spartans, Clayton totaled 42 points, 15 assists and eight rebounds. Dixon called Clayton “our quarterback,” but Clayton credited the coaching staff with giving the players the reins on offense.
“They give us the freedom to shoot with confidence when we’re open,” he said. “So that’s what we did tonight. We shot with confidence, and it was a good day for us.”
Coppin State will get a chance to extend its gap in the North Division next weekend when it welcomes Morgan State for a pair of games. The crosstown rivals split a two-game series last weekend, and Clayton said the players are fully aware of the opportunity ahead of them.
“Just like today, the Morgan game is a statement game just because we kind of played them even last week,” he said. “So we’ve got to come in mentally just to make a statement.”