Girls basketball coaches Mike Dukes and Ulysses Hardy knew how they wanted to finish the season: playing against each other in the Class 1A state final.
It seemed unlikely, given their young rosters. But after Dukes, in his first year at No. 12 Pikesville, and Hardy, in his third at Coppin Academy, led their schools to their first region titles, the second cousins are each one game away from making Saturday night’s state championship game at Towson University’s SECU Arena a family reunion.
“We talk pretty much every day about getting to that final game,” Hardy said. “That’s what we want. That was the plan at the beginning of the year. Coppin vs. Pikesville, and have two family members going at each other.”
The teams have already met this season, though the scrimmage at Pikesville in December was more memorable for its crowd than the result.
“I’ve never seen a scrimmage that packed,” Hardy said. “It was one of the best scrimmages Mike and I ever had. We both got ready for the season that night. The environment was there, family was there. We got friends on both sides. It was pretty much where we were in each other’s backyard.”
Said Dukes: “It was a great scrimmage. It was just full of great quarters and at the end we agreed, ‘Let’s meet at Towson.’ I don’t know that either one of us were thinking about how realistic it was.”
Hardy knew his freshmen would “make or break” his and Dukes’ best-laid plans, but they grew up fast and developed into strong, aggressive players — just what he wanted.
“They came in with the mindset of working hard, having the mindset to play defense, because I’m a defensive-minded coach,” Hardy said. “A lot of the kids today really don’t believe in defense. They bought in real fast, and they wanted to defend.”
His young players also had help from their teammates. Senior guard Tylea Galloway, a transfer from Poly, was a mentor through Hardy’s “big sister” program, in which older players take younger ones under their wing.
Behind sophomore point guard Kayla Henderson, the Golden Eagles’ leading scorer with 24 points per game, Coppin (21-3) stayed balanced. Freshman post player Nyshae Weaver — called the team’s Dennis Rodman by Hardy — averages 21 points and 14 rebounds, while Galloway (17.5 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists), who will play next season at Division I Delaware State, and her sister Tanae (14 points, six rebounds), a versatile defender Hardy calls one of the toughest players he’s ever seen, provide the secondary scoring punch.
Hardy needed players such as the Galloway sisters to help the Golden Eagles reach the semifinals in their first year in the state playoff system. The school, operated by and located on the campus of Coppin State with about 350 students in grades nine through 12, is still getting used to its basketball success.
“I’ve never looked up and saw teachers at games,” Hardy said of his first two seasons. “Now I see teachers [at games] an hour and 30 minutes away. So the support around the student body and staff has been great.”
He’s had support at home, too. Hardy’s wife, Felicia, was an assistant women’s basketball coach on the Division I level for more than a decade, including five seasons at Towson University. A former standout at Western and Northeastern and head coach at CCBC Dundalk, Felicia Hardy is a a valuable basketball mind who helps her husband prepare his scouting reports. And Ulysses Hardy can also walk across campus anytime to see his brother-in-law, Coppin State women’s basketball coach DeWayne Burroughs, and pick his brain. He’s done the same with some of men’s coach Juan Dixon’s assistants.
With Coppin’s success, Hardy has seen his players’ attitude change.
In the past month, Hardy said Henderson has been doing her own scouting, talking more about basketball and taking her college recruitment more seriously. Coppin hopes its semifinal appearance is more than just a reflection of this season, but of what’s to come.
Henderson told Hardy that the Golden Eagles’ success “raises the bar across the state.”
“She said, ‘This is not only this year. We’ve got to prepare for next year as well,’ ” Hardy said. “ ‘So when we’re done this year, we’ve got to work hard this summer, and when preseason starts, we’ve all got to commit to being there, because we don’t want to fall short.’ ”
Dukes is adjusting to newfound success, too. He had a feeling the Panthers (21-2) might be pretty good when senior transfer Kayla Jackson from New Jersey “just kind of fell in our lap,” providing instant leadership and experience.
“It was a matter of us being able to jell and put things together, so I was pretty optimistic,” Dukes said. “Now, reaching the heights that we we reached? That’s a whole different story.”
Dukes knows a talented team when he sees one, having served the previous three seasons as an assistant at St. Frances under Jerome Shelton and winning two Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference titles. So when Pikesville won the Donnis Thompson bracket championship at the Title IX Classic at the D.C. Armory in late December, a path to the state championship suddenly wasn’t so unlikely.
“When we won Title IX, I really started to feel that this could be a special group,” said Dukes, who also coached Towson Catholic for two seasons before the school closed. “Because we had early success, the kids were able to buy in and buy in pretty easily.”
Charia Roberts and Tyra Robinson have been crucial to that success, part of what Dukes calls “a perfect storm in terms of the ingredients.”
“Charia Roberts has really been the anchor for us all season long,” Dukes said of his sophomore forward, a first-team All-Baltimore County selection who averages averages 17 points and 13 rebounds per game. “She came over to us from Mercy and she was only a sophomore. I actually got to work out a little bit with her late summer and I was like, ‘Wow, this kid has some pretty special gifts here.’ So I knew she was going to be a pretty big handful for any of our opponents in the league.”
Robinson was another talented player who fell into Dukes’ lap. After playing junior varsity at St. Frances, she transferred to Pikesville with the hope of more playing time at the varsity level. Now she’s averaging 13 points per game for a first-time state semifinalist, one of three in the Baltimore area this postseason. No. 7 Long Reach beat No. 15 Chesapeake-AA, 77-58, in the 3A East championship game for the program’s first region title and will face No. 6 Poly on Thursday at 9 p.m. at SECU Arena.
Hardy and Dukes have done heavy lifting this season, but now they face their biggest tests. Coppin must get past last year’s state finalist and 2016 champion Largo (Friday, 9 p.m., SECU Arena), while Pikesville is up against Southern-Garrett (Friday, 7 p.m., SECU Arena), which has been to the state final four straight times.
But they know that if at least one of them wins, they’ll have another voice in their cheering section for Saturday’s title game.
“He was here Saturday,” Hardy said of Dukes. “I went over to watch a quarter of his game, then ran back over to my gym and looked up and he was sitting behind me. We kind of support each other and scout each other at the same time. That’s what we say. ‘We’re supporting, but I’m still watching what you’re doing.’ ”
If his Panthers win, Dukes hopes he’s doing some last-minute scouting Friday night. Though if Coppin and Pikesville both lose, at least they’ll be seeing a lot more of each other this offseason after growing closer this winter.
“He’s an excellent basketball mind and I respect him a lot, and I think those feelings are mutual,” Dukes said of Hardy. “But obviously, if we both win on Friday, we won’t be talking much.”