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MEAC Championship Preview: Can Coppin State complete the unthinkable?

Despite not having double-digit wins, Coppin State is just one game away from the Big Dance. Can they shock Norfolk State?

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 22 Coppin State at Cleveland State
Jesse Zarzuela scored 27 points in Coppin State’s semifinal victory.
Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

How to watch:

Matchup: No. 7 Coppin State vs. No. 1 Norfolk State

When: Saturday, 1 p.m. ET

Where: Scope Arena, Norfolk, Va.

TV: ESPN 2

DraftKings Line: Norfolk State -7, O/U 136.5

How they got to the finals:

In a tournament that has featured upsets and surprising results, Norfolk State appearing in the final represents a dose of normalcy. The Spartans have been the best team in the MEAC all season, and they came to Scope Arena this week with the expectation that anything short of a second-consecutive MEAC title would be a disappointment.

One peak at the boxscores, and it might seem as if the Spartans have cruised to the finals. However, that hasn’t exactly been the case. The two-win Delaware State Hornets put up a respectable fight Wednesday evening. Norfolk State only led by one point at the break, and it was still a two-possession game with a minute remaining. When the final horn sounded, the Spartans earned a 74-66 win led by 17 points from Jalen Hawkins.

Friday’s clash with Morgan State wasn’t a complete walk in the park, either. The game was tied 28-28 at halftime, but the Spartans finally turned it up a notch in the second half. Norfolk State led by as many as 14 and wound up with a decisive 72-63 victory.

In the matchup with Morgan State, the Spartans were led by none other than MEAC Player of the Year Joe Bryant Jr. who scored 19 points, hauled in five rebounds and dished out four assists. Hawkins also added 19 points of his own, while forward Dana Tate recorded a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds.

The Spartans meet an unlikely challenger, the Coppin State Eagles, in the championship clash. Part of college basketball’s beauty can be found in its forgiving nature. Toss regular season results in the trash, heading into the final month of the season every team understands that all it takes to make the Big Dance is to get hot and win your conference tournament.

Coppin State entered the MEAC Tournament as the seventh-seed after finishing regular season play with a 7-22 record and 6-8 mark in conference play. After wins over Howard and North Carolina Central, they’re just one game away from their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2008.

The Eagles pulled off the biggest upset of the MEAC Tournament in the quarterfinals, knocking off second-seeded Howard by a score of 59-57. A pair of underclassmen guards in Kyle Cardaci and Nendah Tarke led the Eagles in the upset victory. Tarke finished with a double-double, scoring 15 points and securing 10 rebounds. Cardaci also added 15 points while converting on four of his five 3-point attempts.

On Friday evening, Coppin State pieced together a very impressive performance and topped third-seeded North Carolina Central 79-73. Central made a late run to make things interesting, but the Eagles built a 15-point lead with under seven minutes remaining. The Eagles were beneficiaries of a huge performance from sophomore guard Jesse Zarzuela, who led all scorers with 27 points and recorded seven assists.

The Prediction: Coppin State +7

Sure, Norfolk State could blow out Coppin State. The Spartans are the better team with more experience and quite frankly, more talent. I think Norfolk State will win this game, but I will pick Coppin State to cover the spread. The last four MEAC Championship Games have all been determined by eight points or less, I like that trend to continue. Coppin State head coach Juan Dixon has built an impressive roster with young talent. If he can keep this squad together, the Eagles should be able to make it back soon and cut down the nets. However, that moment isn’t happening quite yet. For an official prediction, I will say the Spartans win a close one 68-63.