In their victories in the opening rounds of the National Invitation Tournament Season Tip-Off over Elon University and Rutgers University at the Rutgers Athletic Center, the Dragons followed a similar pattern.
They used steady defense to start the game, holding Elon to two points in the game’s first nine minutes and holding Rutgers to just 22 points in the first half.
Drexel outscored both opponents 11-8 in the first five and a half minutes of the final half, building leads of eight and 13 points over Rutgers and Elon, respectively.
The Dragons then allowed both opponents to stage a comeback. On Nov. 18, Elon was able to trim Drexel’s lead to 52-50 with just under six minutes to play. On Nov. 19, Rutgers used seven straight points in just 89 seconds to draw within one point of the Dragons with 10:53 left.
But in the end, game-sealing outbursts from one or many of Drexel’s offensive spark plugs led to the victories. The Dragons knocked off Elon 71-64. They defeated Rutgers 70-59. By upsetting the Scarlet Knights, Drexel punched its ticket to the semifinals of the tournament in New York City.
After Tuesday’s victory, head coach James “Bruiser” Flint told reporters he had talked to his team about resilience, a quality they often lacked during last season’s disappointing campaign.
“We talked about not stepping back tonight, taking the punches and keep going forward,” Flint said. “We said if we play smart and we play tough, we will be in New York.”
Now they will be. The Dragons will travel to Madison Square Garden — one of the most storied sports locales in the world — Nov. 27 to tango with the No. 5 University of Arizona in the semifinals of the Tip-Off tournament.
The Wildcats pose a huge challenge for Drexel, and the Dragons’ usual winning recipe will be hard to come by. But if their performance in New Jersey is any indication, they are playing at a high-enough level that the game should be closer than most national pundits expect.
Primarily evident in their games at the RAC was the brilliance of Flint’s defense. The Dragons began both games with defensive acuity, especially the first game, when they held Elon to just two points in the first 570 seconds of the game.
Senior forward Dartaye Ruffin had an especially impressive two games on the defensive side of the ball. Ruffin didn’t contribute much in the way of offense, scoring just six points in 48 minutes of play, but his defense was exceptional.
In the game against Elon, he only allowed the Phoenix to score nine points during the 18 minutes he spent on the floor. It was the single best performance by a Dragon this year in terms of points allowed per minute, at 0.5. He also managed to snag five rebounds in his short playing time — as he was limited by foul trouble — for his second-best rebounds-per-minute performance of the season.
His head coach noticed the effort from his senior big man and told reporters after the game just how crucial Ruffin is to the team’s success.
“It was big. He’s a better defensive player, and he’s been rebounding the ball,” Flint said. “We need him to be out there, he’s a senior. He played real tough inside, and he helps the other guys out there. You see the difference with our interior defense when he’s not in the game.”
Against Arizona, Ruffin will be called on to body up against freshman phenom Aaron Gordon, a six-foot-nine-inch, 225 pounder who is averaging 13 points and nine rebounds per game through the first five games of the season.
Ruffin’s job will be to get under Gordon’s skin. In the closest of Arizona’s five wins this year, a 69-60 victory over San Diego State University, Gordon picked up four fouls, two more than any other game this season. With head coach Sean Miller having to temper his freshman’s minutes throughout the game because of foul trouble, the Arizona offense scored well below its average of 84 points per game.
With a sturdy defensive outing from Ruffin and continued offensive depth, the Dragons will have a chance to do something that they haven’t done since Dec. 14, 2010: knock off a nationally ranked opponent.
The stakes are even higher with the game being at “the Mecca” and being televised nationally.
“It’s a big thing,” Flint said of the Dragons’ opportunity to play on such a big stage. “You’re on primetime. You’re going to be playing against some of the better teams in the country. It’s always one of the major tournaments, so for Drexel to be on television is big time.”
There’s no question: To a mid-major program like Drexel, just being on national television is big time. But competing with — and possibly upsetting — a nationally ranked team, all in the biggest city in America?
That would be the headline.