On Monday, Nov 14, the UNCG Spartans bested the Coppin St. Eagles 55-48 in a grueling defensive battle at the Greensboro Coliseum. Coppin St. is coached by Juan Dixon, an NCAA Champion, Final Four Most Outstanding Player from Maryland’s iconic 2002 championship run, and a near decade-long NBA veteran. The experience and toughness that Dixon brings to the bench were certainly apparent in the Eagles’ ferocious attempt at a comeback in this game.
The game began on a poor note for Coppin St., as forward Tyree Corbett was handed a technical foul for hanging on the rim on the Eagles’ first goal of the game. That bad omen continued for the first 12 minutes of play as UNCG held a commanding 22-8 lead with 8:30 remaining in the first half. Khrye Thompson, a junior forward, hailing from nearby Kernersville, NC led the offensive charge for the Spartans to that point with seven points and only one miss among his first four shots.
Despite the hot start for UNCG, there was still some very sloppy play that held the Spartans back from running away with this game, and would also foreshadow some later struggles in the second half. Despite holding a 31-20 lead at the halfway point, UNCG committed ten turnovers in comparison to Coppin St.’s six. Luckily the Eagles were only able to score a measly four points from the turnovers they forced.
Another key stat of the first half was the performance of the Spartans’ reinforcements, UNCG won the bench scoring battle in the first half 15-0 en route to their 31-20 advantage. As for Coppin St., redshirt sophomore guard Jesse Zarzuela carried the offensive burden, chipping 11 of the Eagles’ 20 points; a theme that would continue into the second half.
After a rousing game of knockout as halftime entertainment, the battle ensued with momentum shifting Coppin St.’s way. Within the first 20 seconds of the half, the Spartans’ rim protector senior forward Mohammed Abdulsalam picked up his third foul and had to check out of the game. From there, UNCG struggled with poor shooting from the field and an extended scoring drought as Coppin St. brought the game to within one at 40-39 with nine minutes remaining off of a Tyree Corbett finish through contact.
Both teams would struggle to find the basket over the next five minutes of game time, a Khrye Thompson three-point shot put the Spartans up 45-41 with 5:43 left. Two minutes later, Jesse Zarzuela would slither his way into the lane and draw contact on Mohammed Abdulsalam giving him his fourth foul and putting him one more call away from disqualification. Zarzuela would drain both of his freebies bringing the Eagles to within two points with three minutes remaining.
All night long, UNCG’s Head Coach Mike Jones employed a zone defense that forced Coppin St. to take long jumpers that simply were not falling. Jesse Zarzuela to this point had struggled from long range only making 2/14 from three-point range. Zarzuela hit perhaps the biggest three of his career with 1:46 left as he stole the ball from UNCG’s Kobe Langley and pulled in transition to trim the Spartan lead to one point; 47-46.
The aforementioned sloppy play and turnovers from the first half continued to plague the Spartans as on the very next possession, Zarzuela would pick Langley’s pocket for his eighth steal of the game then find his teammate Nendah Turke on the break for the emphatic slam dunk as Coppin St. took a 48-47 lead with just 1:12 remaining.
Kobe Langley was not one to be discouraged. On the next play he made a beautiful pass to the corner to wide open Kaleb Hunter who sank the three-pointer and gave UNCG a 50-48 lead with 50 seconds left. The clutch play was infectious as Khyre Thompson got a key defensive stop on the next play via taking a charge on Nendah Turke to get possession back for the Spartans. From there, Langley once again found the open man in the corner, this time it was guard De’Monte Buckingham who drained the game-clinching shot. Hunter sank a couple of freebies from an intentional foul to bring the contest to its 55-48 conclusion in favor of UNCG.
After the game, Juan Dixon praised his team’s defensive effort in the loss and took note of “all of the experience we have to replace from last year’s MEAC champion team”. On the victor’s side of things, Khyre Thompson praised his point guard’s performance and said that “[Kobe Langley] is one of our most dynamic playmakers, I’ve played with him since high school … and we trust him with the ball in his hands.”. Coach Mike Jones stated, “It’s a lot better to learn lessons from wins than losses, but I’m proud of this team for gutting out a win …. the bench maintained us in the first half but we have to play 40 minutes.”