Close Doesn't Count
Coppin State coach Ron (Fang) Mitchell sat alone in a corner of a
locker room in Hill Field House at Morgan State in Baltimore,
staring a hole through the wall and wondering what terrible deeds
he had committed in a previous life. His players and assistant
coaches were gone now, and so were all their big plans. They had
ridden a 17-game winning streak, the nation's longest, into the
championship game of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC)
tournament last Saturday, and they were expecting to ride right
into the field of 64 in the NCAAs. This was supposed to be their
year, their chance to prove at last that they could be more in the
national tournament than just a lovable tuneup for a top-seeded
In the end there seemed to be just one area in which these
Coppin kids needed work: picking the right spot for a letdown.
North Carolina A&T outplayed the Eagles in the final minutes of
the frantic MEAC title game, and the Aggies slipped away with a
66-64 victory. It was Coppin's first loss in two months, and it
sure put a damper on a terrific 20-9 season. The MEAC works the
old-fashioned way: It's one of about 17 conferences in which the
winner moves on to the NCAAs and everyone else is out of luck.
Even within the flesh-eating confines of college basketball, it
didn't seem fair. A&T needed the win just to finish over .500
(15-14), but the Aggies still get the bid. The best Coppin can
hope for is a spot in the NIT, not much consolation for a team
that has won 47 of its last 48 regular-season conference games.
``I don't want to sound like I'm crying or anything,'' said
Mitchell, ``but they really shouldn't play this tournament.''
Mitchell looked like a boxer who went down in the 12th round while
leading on all three cards. And this wasn't the first time he had
been the victim of a late KO. His Eagles had lost by a point to
eighth-seeded Morgan State in the first round of the MEAC
tournament last year after going undefeated in the conference
regular season. This year they came apart in crunch time against
A&T, a team they had destroyed just two weeks earlier.
Now the Aggies not only get the MEAC's bid to the NCAAs for the
second straight year, they'll also get most of the money that
goes with it. North Carolina A&T will keep half of the NCAA
tournament payoff, a quarter will go to the conference, and the
other quarter will be divided evenly among all the MEAC schools.
Last year's MEAC tournament win earned A&T $128,000, according
to athletic director Willie Burden.
``There's just so much pressure when you make it all depend on
one game,'' said Mitchell. ``It's like you just discount all you
accomplished during the year. I wish we could be like Penn
[which is a member of the Ivy League, one of only three
conferences that don't have a postseason tournament]. Win during
the season, and you're in.''
That's just not going to happen, of course. The MEAC tournament is
too good, and the high stakes only serve to make it more intense.
Who cares who wins the Big East tournament this weekend? Who
remembers a week later? When a conference sends as many as a
half-dozen teams to the NCAAs, the league tournament has a way of
becoming exhibition season.
The MEAC doesn't have that problem. The players don't treat this
tournament as if it were a matter of life or death. They play as
if it's more important than that. ``It's as simple as this,''
says A&T guard Tyrone Brice. ``You win, you're in the Big Dance.
You lose, you watch on TV. That's a lot of motivation for teams
Brice was so excited 10 minutes before the championship game that
he could be seen in line for the facilities in the public men's
room on the first floor of Hill Field House. No one would have
noticed if it hadn't been for the fact that he was in uniform. In
this conference the stars are not afraid to mingle with the little
The MEAC consists of nine historically black schools. The
teams have some good guards, some great slashers and very few big
men. This year's tournament featured one 7-footer. But most MEAC
teams can put on a full-court press that will make you want to
throw up your arms and surrender.
That doesn't earn them a lot of ink, however. ``We're just not in
the loop,'' says Mitchell. ``Some publications don't even mention
us. Dickie and the boys, they don't even know we exist.'' Indeed,
the MEAC final was one of Coppin State's rare appearances on ESPN
even though the Eagles beat LSU and played St. John's down to the
wire earlier this season.
The MEAC's record in the NCAA tournament probably has a little
something to do with the lack of attention too. The conference
has never won a game in the NCAAs. It has been an automatic L,
an ignominious 0-14 since it began getting an automatic berth in
1981. Honestly now, would you give an at-large bid to a
conference that has never won a tournament game?
``Look at it this way,'' says Burden. ``Anyone who represents
our conference can make history by advancing beyond the first
round and knocking off a top seed.'' The Aggies have certainly
had their shot at it. This marks the ninth time they have
represented the MEAC in the NCAA tournament, including a string
of seven straight appearances in the mid-1980s. Only once has
A&T come within 10 points of winning. Last year the Aggies got
their usual 16th seed and lost 94-79 to Arkansas in the first
``We were just flattered to be there and playing them,'' says
Brice, who scored 20 points against the Razorbacks. ``We gave
them a game, but they ran away with it in the last three
Naturally the Aggies insist things will be different this year.
It hasn't helped that A&T is working on its third coach in three
years, which was one reason for the Aggies' rocky regular season.
Last year's coach, Jeff Capel, left to take over at Old Dominion,
and Roy Thomas, a longtime junior college coach, moved up to run
the A&T program. The Aggies responded by losing five of their
first six games. ``It was a little frustrating, having to go
through another adjustment period,'' says 6-foot senior guard
Phillip Allen, who won the Outstanding Performer Award in the MEAC
tournament for the second straight year. ``But the four seniors
just said, `Let's go out and do it.' Earlier in the season we
wouldn't have won a game like this, but that shows you the
character of this team.''
The Aggies scored the game-winner in vintage MEAC style. With the
score tied with :10 remaining, Allen grabbed the rebound of an
ill-conceived Eagle three-pointer and threw a behind-the-back pass
to forward John Floyd, who seemed to leave the floor somewhere
around half-court on his way to an emphatic game-winning dunk.
Amid shouts of ``Final Four! Final Four!'' the Aggie fans sprinted
onto the floor and piled onto their unlikely heroes. ``It all
starts right here,'' said Allen, thumping the left side of his
chest with his fist. ``You got to show heart. That's what this is
all about. You just got to say, `No one's stopping me.' ''
No one's stopping the Aggies. Not this week. They're MEAC champs,
and they're in the NCAA tournament, and it doesn't matter how
badly they get pounded in the first round. It still beats sitting
in front of the TV.
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS Allen (12) scored 17 points as North Carolina A&T toppled heavily favored Coppin State.[Phillip Allen scoring against Coppin State]
COLOR PHOTO:PHOTOGRAPHS BY AL TIELEMANS The Aggies' hip-hop cheerleaders and jubilant players were headed to the Big Dance after the victory. [North Carolina A & T cheerleaders; North Carolina A & T players and fans celebrating]