Copeland’s first trip to Big Dance

Published 10:41pm Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Suffolk’s Samuel “Jay” Copeland and the North Carolina Central University basketball team have been on an impressive run for the last two years. But their latest successes have carried the Eagles to their first Division I berth in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.

Copeland is one of King’s Fork High School’s few 1,000-point scorers, and he was an all-region and all-district talent who helped the Bulldogs win the Group AAA state championship when he was junior.

North Carolina Central University redshirt junior Samuel “Jay” Copeland has helped his team to its first ever qualification for March Madness at the Division I level.
North Carolina Central University redshirt junior Samuel “Jay” Copeland has helped his team to its first ever qualification for March Madness at the Division I level.

He has played in college at the Division I level for both Ball State University and N.C. Central, but this is his inaugural trip to the Big Dance.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Copeland said.

He listed all of the work that led to the achievement, including the pre-season workouts, weight training and strenuous practices featuring suicide runs and ladder exercises.

“All of a sudden you’re seeing your face on the NCAA website,” he said. “That’s when it really hits you.”

The Eagles punched their ticket for March Madness on Saturday by defeating Morgan State University 71-62 in the Mid-Eastern Atlantic Conference tournament championship game at Norfolk Scope.

Before becoming a starter for N.C. Central, Copeland played at Ball State in Muncie, Ind.

“I was there for a year, and then I transferred after my freshman season,” he said, citing a health issue as having motivated the change.

While living there, he struggled with Legionnaires’ disease, a form of bacterial pneumonia. He said after getting sick a couple times, his parents thought it might be better for him to come closer to home.

He followed through and has since been a productive member of the Eagles during his redshirt sophomore and now his redshirt junior year.

“He’s made a nice adjustment,” said Josh Worrell, Copeland’s former coach at King’s Fork.

His supporters back home in Suffolk have expressed their excitement for him now that he will go take a larger stage than ever before this Friday.

“We are so proud of him,” his mother, Lisa Copeland, said. “We’re so happy that (the Eagles are) going.”

Jay Copeland said it means a lot to have helped N.C. Central make its first Division I NCAA tourney but noted the Eagles have other impressive achievements, as well.

“Every time we step out on the floor, we have the opportunity to make history,” he said.

Their win against Morgan State allowed the Eagles to tie the single-season record for wins in school history, with 28, and it landed them their first conference tournament championship since 1950.

N.C. Central currently owns a 20-game win streak, one of the longest in the country. It has the No. 7-ranked defense in NCAA Division I for points allowed per game with 58.5 and the No. 2-ranked field goal percentage allowed at 37.3 percent.

“They say defense wins championships, and obviously that’s true,” Copeland said.

The No. 14-seeded Eagles will face No. 3 Iowa State University on Friday in San Antonio, Texas.

Copeland said his coaches have a simple approach for the Cyclones: “We’ve got the same game plan going in that we always had.”

The Eagles will seek to stop them in transition game, rebound the ball, and “Basically, we’ve got to keep our composure,” Copeland said. “Those were our three top things.”

And then he added, “Have fun.”

His mother said the family plans to go to Texas for the game.

“We’re just playing it by ear, letting the Lord guide us, same way He got us here,” she said.

The game is set for 9:50 p.m. Friday and will be broadcast on TNT.

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