BALTIMORE --- Fang Mitchell stalked the sideline, hollering out instructions Monday night as he had so many other times during his long run at Coppin State.
The venerable Charm City institution couldn't have much enjoyed what he saw for the first 20 minutes: Shaky shooting and, perhaps more jarring, massive defensive rebounding struggles that left the Eagles down as many as 12 to struggling South Carolina State.
The second half went better; Coppin rallied for an 84-80 victory, improving to 7-9 (2-2 MEAC) just before a taxing stretch of six road dates in eight games.
"It seemed like they were sleepwalking; we had a quiet little speech at halftime and for some reason they got a little energy with them," Mitchell said. "We're very happy to see that carried over to the second half."
And then he cackled, a familiar laugh heard for a quarter-century at the small West Baltimore school still best known for pulling an upset of second-seeded South Carolina in the 1997 NCAA tournament.
A lot has changed since then. The Eagles have one NCAA appearance in the last 13 years, a play-in game date with Mount St. Mary's in Dayton, Ohio, in 2008. The dimly lit Coppin Center gave way to the school's Physical Education Complex, a gleaming building that opened a year ago and is arguably the best college arena among the five Division I schools with either a Baltimore address or at least inside the Baltimore Beltway.
But Mitchell, ever the fighter and disciplinarian, keeps on going. Even when things around him aren't so great.
Such was the case a year ago, a rare season of struggles in league play for the Eagles. Sure, Mitchell annually sent Coppin through a grinding nonconference schedule that doubled as the way the athletic department paid the bills. But come MEAC season, it was prepared.
Except it wasn't last year. By late in the season, the Eagles were simply frazzled on their way to an 8-22 record (and just 3-13 in the conference). When October arrived, only four players remained from a year earlier, when Coppin failed to reach seven MEAC wins for just the second time under Mitchell.
"It's like night and day," a relieved Mitchell said. "The young people here care, and they want to win and winning is important to them. They're young, and how to win becomes a problem."
It's safe to leave that issue to Mitchell, who collected win No. 386 at Coppin on Monday and passed 600 victories for his career earlier this season.
With a revamped roster featuring both a few crucial holdovers (seniors Vince Goldsberry and Ceslovas Kucinskas among them) and an infusion of junior college prospects (Tony Gallo, Antonio Williams and Akeem Ellis all start), the Eagles also have the benefit of being more talented than a year ago.
Coppin is within two games of .500 after mid-January for the first time since finishing the 2004-05 season at 14-15. Those daunting early-season road trips always created a hole, even for Mitchell's finest teams.
This one might not be quite that good, but there is promise. The Eagles need one victory to match last year's overall and conference totals. They've rung up a 7-2 mark at home, a place where Mitchell isn't accustomed to playing so much so early in the season.
Of course, the Eagles pestered the likes of Oklahoma, Connecticut and Texas earlier in the season, just like they have so often over the years. They might not be the class of the MEAC --- Morgan State stands as a strong favorite to repeat --- but they're better than a team picked to tie for 10th in an 11-team league.
"They battled on the road against some of those big schools, and that gave me some hope coming into conference would be a lot different than it was last year," Mitchell said.
And for that, Mitchell and Baltimore hoops fans both have reason to be thankful.