With each step up the ladder to cut down the nets, senior guard Hollie Mershon was closer to realizing a dream she has had from the moment she stepped onto Drexel University’s campus. Words couldn’t express the feeling that she and fellow seniors Taylor Wootton, Renee Johnson-Allen and Nicki Jones had after completing the greatest season in Drexel women’s basketball history.
“When we were talking and getting interviewed after the game, I just said that it’s pretty amazing to cut down the nets that we’ve been shooting with all season long,” an elated Mershon said after the game. “It was such a good feeling to have a home crowd there when we cut them down.”
The Dragons came into the Women’s National Invitation Tournament Championship Game against The University of Utah in unfamiliar territory. They had never won a WNIT game before this season, let alone had the opportunity to compete for the title. However, the unfamiliarity did not stop the Dragons from stepping up to the occasion and winning their first-ever WNIT title.
After losing last year’s leading scorer, Kamile Nacickaite, the Dragons were picked to finish fourth in the preseason Colonial Athletic Association poll. However, head coach Denise Dillon knew she had a special group of players who had the chemistry and effort necessary to win games.
“Team chemistry was a big reason why we won so many games this year,” Dillon said. “When we met early in September, we knew we were going to be good [enough to] contend for a championship.”
Dillon also had a player in Mershon who set a new standard for every current and future Dragon. This season, Mershon led Drexel in scoring, rebounding and assists. She was also named First Team All-CAA and became the only player in Dragon history with 1,600 points and 300 assists in a career. The Dragons set a new team record with 28 wins and became the first Philadelphia Division I women’s basketball team to win a postseason tournament.
The WNIT Championship was a great game, considering the occasion. The Dragons trailed for much of the first half as Utah withstood every attempt by Drexel to take the lead. However, Utah saw its five-point lead diminish in the second half when Mershon did what she had done all year and stepped up to the plate. She made the shots needed to have the 1,922 fans in the Daskalakis Athletic Center storm the court to celebrate after the game.
The first half featured a Drexel team struggling to find answers offensively and defensively against the well-prepared Utes. As a result, the Dragons trailed 24-21 at the half. Early on in the second half, their struggles continued as Utah extended its lead to 31-24. Dillon’s team knew it had to find a way to contain Utah’s post play and create more chances on the offensive end.
“We went back to the 2-3 more [as well as] playing a little bit of man-to-man, but in the first half we were just getting lazy on defense,” Mershon, who was named the WNIT MVP, said. “In the second half we had to turn it up and stay on the defensive boards to eliminate their second-chance opportunities. We just really stepped up our game.”
That change helped to spark the Dragons’ second-half comeback, as the top-10-ranked Dragons defense allowed only two Utah points in a span of nine minutes in the second half. Johnson-Allen took a pass from Mershon with 10:38 remaining to tie the game at 33-33.
On their next trip down the floor, junior guard Fiona Flanagan hit a three from the top of the key to give the Dragons their first lead of the day. When Mershon drove down the lane on the Dragons’ next offensive possession, she gave them a 38-33 lead.
The last eight minutes of the game were a back-and-forth affair that saw the Dragons grind out the victory. After Utah’s Iwalani Rodrigues hit a three-pointer to give Utah a 43-42 lead with three minutes to go, the Dragon defense clamped down. And with 21 seconds remaining, Mershon drove down the left side and hit a layup to put Drexel up 44-43. After being fouled with nine seconds to go, she hit the two biggest free throws of her career to give the Dragons a 46-43 lead. While Utah had one final attempt to tie the game, the shot came up short, and the DAC Pack stormed the court.
This game was won by the Dragons in part thanks to the determination and will of the seniors both on and off the court. Wootton, who scored her 1,000th career point in the second half, led the team with 16 points. Mershon ended up with 14 points, even though she shot just 5-20 from the field, while Johnson-Allen finished with six points. Jones, who was lost to an injury late in the season and missed the final 15 games, was every bit a part of this team and the championship run.
“After playing every game up until I got hurt and being involved with my teammates, I still felt like a part of the team even though I wasn’t able to do anything [basketball-related] at all,” Jones said after the game. “So I still felt like I won the championship, which I did.”
After the game, the Dragons celebrated with their coaches, fans and families. This was the moment everyone on this team imagined being a part of: the confetti, music and dancing in celebration.
“Special” was the word Dillon used to describe her championship team. “Everything about this team was special. You know when you have something great, and this team had it.”
As each Dragon embraced this special moment, they realized they had one more step to take to complete their journey: the step off the ladder and back down to Earth.