Coppin State senior point guard Dejuan Clayton never played in a victory over Norfolk State in the three seasons leading up to his senior year, and the Eagles had lost 14 straight to the Spartans. Those disappointments ended with an 81-71 home victory over the visiting Spartans on Saturday afternoon.
Clayton led the way with 20 points and also had a team-high six assists. He added seven rebounds in a performance where five Coppin State players were in double figures. Norfolk State’s Joe Bryant finished with a game-high 21 points.
“That’s what we preach. Our coaches preach it — we play defense, we give them effort on defense and we have the freedom to do what we want on offense,” Clayton said. “As a team, we understand that we have multiple options and multiple scorers. So, we make it hard on teams when we share the ball.”
Coppin State (5-9, 4-1 Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) entered Saturday’s matchup with Norfolk State (8-5, 3-2) tied for first in the MEAC north with a 3-1 division record. While the Eagles struggled with a 1-8 nonconference record last season, they’ve made their case as a contender in their own division this season.
Coppin coach Juan Dixon has witnessed firsthand the amount of energy the team has played with since Clayton returned from a five-game hiatus for personal reasons. The Eagles can get 20 points from each of their top-seven scorers on any given night. That makes them dangerous down the stretch of the MEAC season.
“In our nonconference schedule, we were without our point guard Dejuan Clayton for five games,” Dixon said. “He was dealing with some personal stuff. There were quite a few nonconference games that we could’ve won, but we tell our guys that we’d like to break our seasons into thirds — nonconference, inconference and the conference tournament. We’re in the second part of our season and we want to play our best basketball going into March. It feels good to be 4-1, but we have a lot of work to do and we just have to keep grinding.”
The Eagles struggled from the field in the first four minutes. Koby Thomas had Coppin State’s first three points as the Eagles went 1 for 6 from the field. Soon after, players had to be separated after a hard foul. Both coaches received technical fouls. Devante Carter immediately made an impact on Norfolk State’s end with a quick seven points in the first eight minutes.
However, momentum swung in the direction of Coppin State with Anthony Tarke’s play — a steal, a dunk and converting a three-point play. Then, Clayton came up big by knocking down two free throws. Thomas hit another 3-pointer and finished off the half with a steal and a layup for nine points. Coppin State led 40-30 at the conclusion of the first half.
Coppin State went on to control its lead through the second half. The team’s only scare came when they led by just six points when Norfolk State’s Kashaun Hicks hit a 3-pointer with under 16 minutes remaining. Eagles forward Kenan Sarvan knocked down two consecutive 3-pointers and Kyle Cardaci hit two more for a 57-47 lead in under 12 minutes left.
The Eagles began to pull away when forward Yuat Alok finished with a layup and converted his free throw attempt. Clayton hit a 3-pointer right after to give them a 12-point lead. Thomas was assessed his second technical foul, finishing with Coppin State’s largest lead came with 1:33 remaining with the entire starting lineup subbed out.
“It was big. Going into the game today against Norfolk, it was a lot on the line,” Dixon said. “It was for first in the division, they’re a very good ballclub, but we just wanted our guys to come out and play with a lot of effort on the defensive end. [We] had to execute the game plan, be familiar with the personnel that’s on the floor and offensively, we just wanted to play in transition.”