In a feel-good season for Coppin State women’s basketball, veteran guard Aliyah Lawson said a big moment came in the locker room after a major win at Marshall in December. Head coach Laura Harper took the floor and toned down the celebration after the upset victory.

“She told us that a lot of people were coming up and telling her how they were surprised what she was doing with the program,” recalled the senior All-MEAC guard. “But she told us this was what she expected. Yeah, we should be excited and celebrate, but this was not where our dreams stopped. From that win, we’ve gone into games believing, not hoping we could win.”

The 2021-22 season, the first in a couple of years not knocked off course by COVID, has been a dream for the West Baltimore school’s women’s team. After amassing 16 total victories during the previous four seasons, the Eagles have already soared to a 13-9 record this season and are in hot pursuit of their first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title in 17 years after five straight victories.

For her part, second-year head coach Harper, is very familiar with winning. She was the Most Outstanding Player in the 2006 Final Four when Maryland captured its national championship. Suffice to say Harper was paying attention her four years in College Park, Md., where Brenda Frese is still offering a masters class in motivation, winning basketball and relationship-building.

“It’s hard when you talk about expectations because I always have maximum expectations for myself and anything I’m a part of leading,” Harper said of a team slated for a sixth-place finish (among eight teams) in the preseason MEAC poll. “Going into last season I thought we were going to be successful because that’s who I am. But coming from 2-13 last year, that was extremely humbling. Now to be [7-2] in the conference and to have [13] wins already, it’s really exciting the level of buy-in from the players.”

The ‘Baltimore Bully’

Baltimore native Jaia Alexander has certainly bought in. The Roland Park Country School product was rated the 25th-best guard in the country in the recruiting class of 2016. Harper, then an assistant at High Point University, knew all about her, but Alexander was ticketed for powerhouse Clemson and then later transferred to Butler. When she was looking to move on again this summer, Harper was ready.

“I remembered Jaia from Roland Park Country and the Maryland Terps [club] program and as soon as she came into the portal, I told my staff I had to get her,” Harper said. “A lot of times Jaia has been misunderstood because she has an indomitable will. She wants to win. She plays so hard [that] she gets so locked in and other details are ignored.”

That’s a nice way of saying Alexander had run afoul of other coaches because of that intense drive. Harper saw beyond the rough edges and first asked only that Alexander be herself and show respect to those around her.

“I’m grateful,” Alexander said about being back home. “I’m here because of Coach Harper, 100 percent. She sold me on just believing in myself, which is an angle no other coach took with me. It was amazing. She pitched coming home because it was safe and a better environment for me, my mental health and my physical health.”

Grad transfer Alexander missed the 2019-20 season with a knee injury and played at Butler last season on a torn meniscus in the same surgically repaired right knee. She averaged 9.4 points and 7.2 rebounds in 12 games and has turned into a dominant force around the basket. Harper called her the “Baltimore Bully,” a compliment to Alexander’s fervent, physical style. And Alexander is certainly pushing around players in the MEAC.

Often playing before large groups of family and friends at Coppin State’s Physical Education Complex, the 5-foot-11 Alexander is leading the conference in scoring (16.7 points) and rebounding (7.9) and could be on her way to MEAC Player of the Year honors.

Alexander hasn’t been the only important Eagle addition. Junior guard Mossi Staples from Fort Washington, Md., by way of Northeastern, has added 10.9 points, 2.4 steals (second in the MEAC) and an “amazing, infectious, wonderful personality. She has so much energy,” Harper said. “She never gets tired. When I’m talking about playing hard — she’s the epitome of what playing hard looks like. That’s something for me that [is] a core value.”

Central Florida transfer Colleen Bucknor has added 5.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Harper first spotted the 5-foot-11 sophomore forward when Harper was coaching at premier powerhouse Montverde (Fla.) Academy.

“CB had 20 and 20 playing against me at Montverde, and won a state championship at Miami High,” the coach said. “I told her she had the potential to be really special if she honed in on her skills and worked on her offensive game. We had a relationship from Day One, and when she was transferring I knew this was the place for her.”

Bucknor played in just two games as a UCF freshman, but she has been an integral piece at Coppin State. It began with that relationship she and Harper developed on a high school court. Relationships just might be the secret sauce in Harper’s winning recipe for program-building.

Harp’s Coach Story Before She Was the Coach

Harper has one of those stories about a coach believing in her just like the ones so many of her players share about her. No shock, Harper’s story is about Frese, who unabashedly built her amazing coaching career on building relationships.

“I remember being 16 years old and so many people told me I would never amount to much as a player because I was clumsy and goofy and so uncoordinated,” Harper said. “I’ll never forget her talking to my parents, and my dad was like, ‘You really believe Laura can play for you at Maryland?’ Brenda said, ‘She’ll be successful playing for ME at Maryland.’ My dad loves that story because she believed in me when my own parents didn’t. She just saw something different.”

Frese still sees something special in Harper besides that NCAA championship ring, jersey hanging in the Xfinity Center rafters, and that professional career in the WNBA and overseas. The two text at least once a week and often check in with phone calls, though that’s tougher in-season. Consider the veteran coach impressed with what her protégé has done at Coppin.

“It starts with who she was as a player, just her passion and her energy,” Frese said. “Any time you have to go into a rebuild and turn it around, you have to have that to go through the highs and the lows. Laura has just done a remarkable job. She has always been a person that is extremely hungry, and her work ethic is second to none. And then that passion and energy. I’m not surprised.”

Harper has a handle on what Frese gave her as her coach and mentor.

“I try so hard to coach with love and show love like she showed us,” Harper said. “As players, I think you just want to feel loved and supported, and really, that’s just with people in life. I really believe that Brenda showed us what that looked like in the form of tough love. Love always won in her coaching style.”

Looking Up And Ahead

Harper was a blue-collar battler, her obvious skills mixed with a lot of old-fashioned “want to” and gym rat in her game. Her affinity for basketball courts is still part of her DNA as a coach.

“Every time I go into a gym, I love to look up at the banners, the history and the success,” Harper said. “Because that’s what I always aspired to.”

She called on that knowledgeable love for the game when she stepped into the PEC as the new coach.

“I had a clear vision, remembering the Coppin State team that played against my national championship team in 2006. The first thought was they played really, really hard. They were physical,” Harper remembered.

The Eagles were also consistently big winners under then-coach Derek Brown, still the winningest coach in Coppin program history. Brown rattled off four straight 20-win seasons and had 269 total victories — or about 100 more than all the other Coppin coaches combined before Harper.

Harper had a blueprint for what could work at the proud school. She recalled playing against Eagles teams with a lot of size.

“I thought we need to go get size, we needed more strength and we needed people that could score the basketball,” she said. “Sounds so easy, right?”

So far in Year Two, it has been easier. Riding the current five-game winning streak, the Eagles are back in action at home against Norfolk State Feb. 19 at 2 p.m. Harper has filled holes on her roster and stuck to her non-negotiable “pillars” of attitude, effort, energy and communication, core values she believes must be hard-wired in her players.

Lawson is one of those. She has chipped in 12.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and leads the conference with 2.6 three made per game.

“Aliyah Lawson is our heartbeat,” her coach said. “This is her team. She has been here the longest. She has been the steadying force. She’s a reflection of who I am on the floor. I trust her and I need her out there.”

The feeling is mutual.

“She came in and got us all on the same page and brought in a winning attitude and a winning culture coming from Maryland and being in the WNBA,” Lawson said. “It allowed the players to believe in her because of what she has achieved.”

Achievements? Add changing the Eagles’ course to the long list. It seems just a matter of time before Harper has some banners of her own to hang in their gym.

Photo Credit: Tim Rice/Coppin State Athletics

Mike Ashley

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