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MEAC Semifinal Preview: North Carolina Central squares off against upset-minded Coppin State

In the battle of the Eagles, North Carolina Central swept the regular season series against Coppin State by a combined four points

NCAA Basketball: Coppin State at Connecticut
Alex Rojas provided big minutes for Coppin State off the bench this season.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina Central finds itself two wins away from the NCAA Tournament, a familiar place for Levelle Moton’s squad, who have reached three of the last four tournaments.

The meteoric rise of sophomore Justin Wright earned him a spot on the All-MEAC First Team and is a big reason the Eagles are in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Greenville, N.C., native improved his scoring average from 1.3 points per game last season to 13.7 points per contest this season. Eric Boone, the other half of Central’s dynamic duo, was voted to the All-MEAC Second Team and ranked second in the conference with 3.7 assists per game.

Entering Norfolk as the No. 3 seed and a darkhorse contender, the Eagles faced off against Maryland Eastern Shore, with whom they split the season series. The Hawks won the most recent matchup on Feb. 21 in Durham, N.C., 79-66, sparking a three-game skid for the Eagles.

Despite their setback to end the regular season, the Eagles asserted their dominance to open the MEAC Tournament. After holding a five-point halftime lead, North Carolina Central stretched its lead in the second half to claim a 68-56 victory. All-MEAC First Team selection Justin Wright poured in 14 points and six rebounds, while Nicolas Fennell contributed 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting off the bench.

Coppin State stands in the opposing corner for this semifinal bout. All-MEAC First Team and All-Defensive Team selection Nendah Tarke propels the Eagles, pouring in 13.3 points and grabbing 7.0 rebounds per game. Tyree Corbett bolsters their efforts, leading the MEAC in rebounding with 9.2 per contest.

Coppin State’s entrance in the semifinals comes on the heels of an upset over No. 2 seed Howard. As the underdog and the No. 7 seed, the Eagles swept the season series against the Bison with a 59-57 quarterfinal victory.

After Howard’s Elijah Hawkins tied the contest from the charity stripe with 18 seconds remaining, Coppin State took advantage of the opportunity. Nendah Tarke tallied the last of his team-high 15 points with two seconds remaining, as his jumper cemented the Eagles into the semifinals.

As both teams turn the page to their third matchup of the season, their individual records leave the story untold. North Carolina Central swept the regular season series, winning in Durham and Baltimore.

Central won the two matchups by a combined four points with a one-point victory in Durham stemming from a Justin Wright layup with 22 seconds remaining and a three-point loss in Baltimore.

Wright and Tarke will be the headliners of the contest, as Wright averaged 22 points per game, and Tarke 13.5 posted points per game in their two regular season contests.

With one upset already notched on its belt, Coppin State has no fear, and knows it has what it takes to go toe-to-toe with North Carolina Central.

How to Watch

Matchup: No. 3 North Carolina Central vs. No. 7 Coppin State

When: Friday, 8 p.m. ET

Where: Scope Arena, Norfolk, Va.

TV: ESPN+

DraftKings Spread: North Carolina Central -2, O/U 140.5

Prediction

I have no doubt the Eagles are going to advance to the MEAC Finals (I’m kidding). As the DraftKings spread represents the average margin of victory for Central in the two matchups this season, I expect nothing different in this semifinal matchup. Coppin State has proved that their 8-22 record means nothing after the opening tip. Despite their quarterfinal upset against Howard, the Cinderella hopes will end for Coppin State. Wright will prove why he was the MEAC’s leading scorer during conference play, scoring 20+ points on the way to a 75-71 victory.