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College Basketball

With both conference contenders, Coppin State-Morgan State matchup could be a throwback

When the Coppin State and Morgan State men's basketball teams meet for the first time this season Saturday, the governor of Maryland is not expected to be in attendance at the Physical Education Complex.

The game will not decide the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship, an NCAA tournament ticket to the victor.

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The public-address announcer will not have to ask fans to stop hurling ice at cheerleaders. (At least, one can hope.)

It will be a big game, because every game between the East Baltimore and West Baltimore schools, in boom times and bust times, has been a big game to the Eagles and Bears. But Saturday's matchup feels also like a throwback to those more interesting days.

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Rarely in the 21st century have the schools been atop the MEAC standings together. Mediocrity has been the norm, and success has been almost polarizing; the last time both Coppin State and Morgan State finished above .500 in conference play was the 2010-11 season. Yet here they are near the midpoint of the league schedule: the Bears (8-11, 5-1 MEAC) first in the conference, the Eagles (7-13, 4-2) a game back, maybe the most important 40 minutes of the season on tap.

"We're trying to walk around with our head up and say, 'We've got bragging rights. It's our city. We're the best in the city,'" Coppin State senior forward Terry Harris Jr. (Kenwood) said. "We're trying to be more than that, but that game is just so amazing for the city. It brings everybody out. It brings a lot of people together. It's more than just a basketball game. It's an event."

He can tell because even people who might not know how many halves there are in a basketball game are reaching out to him, wishing him luck. The buzz on campus: "Ridiculous," he said.

So was the teams' last encounter at Coppin State. Almost four weeks after Morgan State ran the Eagles out of the gym at Hill Field House, 83-43, the visiting Bears were down by two late in regulation, Harris at the foul line, shooting a pair. He made the first free throw. He missed the second.

Morgan State rebounded the misfire, and Andre Horne took a pass in the left corner. His awkward-looking, game-tying 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds remaining was good, and the Bears later won in overtime, 74-72. It mattered, but only so much: Both teams finished 6-10 in the conference. Neither made it past the MEAC tournament quarterfinals.

"I want to beat them how they beat us," Harris said.

There have been greater stakes in the series. In February 1998, Coppin State was coming off an NCAA tournament appearance and, earlier that season, its seventh straight win over Morgan State.

Before a Channel 2 television audience and an announced attendance of 3,377 that included Gov. Parris N. Glendening, the Eagles made a late push to win again, 76-68, just the Bears' fifth loss in 12 MEAC games. Coppin State would go on to win the conference regular-season title for the second straight season, though a return to the Big Dance was denied in the league tournament final.

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The next season, Morgan State won in the rivalry for the first time since the 1994 MEAC tournament. The Bears' 67-66 overtime win before "an overflowing crowd" of 3,211 at the since-demolished Coppin Center, The Baltimore Sun reported, sent ecstatic Morgan State players onto the top of the press table in celebration and their coach, Chris Fuller, into tears.

"I don't know if I felt this good in a long, long time," he said after the game.

Revenge was cold. In a game so packed with fans that they had to be asked "not to lean on any railings," so loud that "you couldn't even hear Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell's resounding sideline show" and so contentious that scofflaws had to be asked "not to throw ice at the cheerleaders," according to The Sun, the Eagles emerged with a 71-61 road victory.

"It's always Coppin against the world in the MEAC," Mitchell said of the game — and his program's pre-eminence, with more league titles in the 1990s than any other. "That's the reality."

That was the reality. Much has changed. Coppin State wouldn't win another conference championship until 2008. The runner-up was then-second-year-coach Todd Bozeman's Morgan State, which took the next year's title — its first since 1976 — and then repeated in 2010.

The Bears have come within a win of a return trip to the NCAA tournament three times since, but this season represents perhaps the best chance for Baltimore to represent the MEAC in March Madness in a long while.

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Before the Eagles' loss Monday to Norfolk State, coach Michael Grant, who replaced Mitchell in 2014, had looked into the record books. He found that Coppin State was off to its best start in decades.

So, yes, Morgan State "is a big rival game for us," Grant acknowledged Monday. "I think these guys are going to be excited for us. We have never been in this situation before."

It is also new territory for the Bears. Of their five returning players, only senior forward Kyle Thomas (Milford Mill) has more than a year's experience in the rivalry. The students and alumni, Bozeman said, "have more of a feel for it than our players."

But the game could be chess and the rivalry still would rise to the occasion, he explained. That's how it always was for him against DeMatha during his prep-school days at Bishop McNamara. Or against Providence when he was playing guard at Rhode Island. Or against Stanford when he was coaching California.

"It's Coppin-Morgan," he said. "The records don't typically matter. Where you stand in the conference doesn't typically matter."

Now, because of their records and where they stand in the conference, it matters maybe even more than normal.

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jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer


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