From one senior to another, I wish I had a senior day that was focused on all of my accomplishments. Drexel senior forward Samme Givens had his, and now it was time for Old Dominion University’s Kent Bazemore to get his — but Drexel wasn’t having it.
The Dragons gave him the opportunity Feb. 25 in Norfolk, Va. as they fouled Bazemore on a three-point attempt with less than a second remaining. First shot — good. Second shot — swish. The third shot to tie the game — clank! The clock runs out and the Dragons finish the season on a 17-game winning streak as Bazemore kneels at the foul line.
Such is life.
The Monarchs have the most Colonial Athletic Association championships since 1992, when they joined. And Drexel? This is its first-ever regular-season championship and No. 1 seed.
Heading into — and coming out — of the game, the Dragons possessed the nation’s second-longest active winning streak at 16 — now 17 — behind only the top-ranked University of Kentucky — is it a coincidence that Kentucky head coach John Calipari and Drexel head coach Bruiser Flint coached together during the University of Massachusetts glory days? Just burn on that one for a while.
Anyway, back to the final game of the regular season. Despite being short a guard — junior Derrick Thomas is on interim suspension with legal issues — the Dragons were able to overcome an insane atmosphere of a sellout crowd on senior night and defeat ODU 73-72.
“Our guys played really well at ODU, especially in that kind of environment,” Flint said. “ODU is one of the hardest places in the league to win, so to get the victory there was impressive.”
Freshman standout guard Damion Lee — the frontrunner for CAA Rookie of the Year — had another impressive performance, sinking six three-pointers and scoring a team-high 24 points.
“Damion played one of his best games of the year at ODU,” Flint said. “He made big shots for us all night and really played well.”
The Dragons had already locked up the No. 1 seed a few days prior, so this game was about three things: preserving the winning streak, continuing to earn respect from the bracketologists who may decide their NCAA fate, and lastly, CAA pride. By coming into a tough environment like that shorthanded, there is nothing more you can come away with if you steal a tough victory.
As mentioned, Thomas was inactive for the game, so junior guard Chris Fouch got the start — and will probably start the entire CAA Tournament and whatever other postseason games await this squad — and scored 15 points.
Of those 15 points, his last two were the most crucial. With only seconds remaining, Fouch stood at the line for two free throw attempts. He sank them both, giving Drexel 73 points and eventually the win.
Now that the regular season is over, the Dragons have some extra hardware to take with them into the CAA Tournament. Flint recently earned his fourth, and record-breaking, CAA Coach of the Year Award. Lee earned his expected CAA Rookie of the Year award. Lastly, sophomore point guard Frantz Massenat and givens were named First and Second Team All-CAA, respectively.
According to Flint, the Dragons’ goal and expectation this season has stayed consistent; they want to, and feel like they can, win the CAA Tournament — consequently earning an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
But if the Dragons happen to falter in the tournament, have they done enough to garner an at-large bid? A controversy like this is much like the one that surrounded Virginia Commonwealth University last season after they placed third in the tournament but received a bid anyway.
“We think we deserve [a bid] based on the way we have played throughout the entire season,” Flint said. “We’ve won 17 in a row down the stretch, and not many teams can say that.”
But, as mentioned, the Dragons are the No. 1 seed. In addition, before everything started, they were picked as the preseason favorites to win it all and head to the NCAA Tournament. Flint feels that his team can keep up with those expectations.
“That being said, we don’t want to leave it in the hands of the selection committee,” he said. “We want to win the tournament.”
The tournament, which will take place March 3-5 in Richmond, Va., has shaped out like this for the Dragons:
They have earned a bye in the first round by posting a 15-2 regular season conference record, subsequently winning the regular-season title and earning an automatic postseason bid — this means they will at least be in the National Invitation Tournament if they don’t get an NCAA bid.
Once the first round is complete, the Dragons will play March 4 at noon against either James Madison University or the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in the second round.
Next, assuming the Dragons win, are the semifinals. Drexel will face either fourth-seeded ODU or the University of Delaware. The Blue Hens are one of two teams in the CAA — Georgia State University is the other — to down the Dragons this season, and will have to beat the lowly Towson University Tigers in the first round to face ODU, which should be almost automatic.
The championship game will be March 5, and if the Dragons can secure the victory, they will be able to do something they haven’t done since the times of Malik Rose — earn a trip to March Madness.
Keys To Victory
No. 1 — Defense
The Dragons have the No. 1 scoring defense in the CAA, allowing just 55.7 points against per game. If Drexel can continue to play stellar defense without the likes of Thomas on the wing, while continuing to average almost 10 points above what they allow — Drexel is also No. 1 in scoring margin at 9.3 points per game — they should have no problem rolling through the competition.
No. 2 — Rebounding
Drexel is the No. 1 defensive rebounding team and No. 2 in rebounding margin in the conference. The two themes for the Dragons in recent years have been defense and rebounding. So you know that if Drexel goes hard on the glass, that means senior forward Samme Givens will have more second-chance points. The only team that can compete with the Dragons on the boards is ODU, and Drexel just sneaked by them and won’t see them again until the third round.
No. 3 — Free throws
Under Flint, the Dragons have continued to be torrid free throw shooters year after year. I’m not really sure how he did it, but Flint fixed the Dragons’ woes, and they now lead the conference in free-throw percentage at 74.6 percent — just over two points higher than any other team. If they get their chances at the line, and they will, the Dragons will be hard to top.
No. 4 — Shooting percentage
Drexel is No. 1 in three-point shooting percentage and three-point defense. They are also No. 2 in field goal percentage and field goal defense. Basically, if the Dragons follow the first key to victory and continue on their path to shooting well, there is almost no way they can fail to earn that title.
Who To Watch Out For
Lee, just a freshman, is having an outstanding season and has all but locked up the freshman of the year award. But, with the way he has been performing of late and the way he plays when the Dragons get on a role, I feel as though he has a chance to finish the tournament as the MVP.
I would say he’s a dark horse in that race, but to be a dark horse you have to sneak in unnoticed, and his knack for being able to catch fire and score 20-plus points on any given night isn’t exactly unnoticeable.
I won’t even say that this is me going out on a limb, because Drexel has been unstoppable this season. Even with a short bench, I feel that if the Dragons can get anything positive from freshman guard Aquil Younger, they can lock up this tournament.
CHAMPIONSHIP GAME: Drexel over VCU, but I still see both teams in the NCAA Tournament.