Drexel senior forward Austin Williams, sophomore forward Alihan Demir and sophomore guard Kurk Lee trap an opponent at the Daskalakis Athletic Center.
(Luke Risher/ The Empire)
Down by as many as 34 points, the Drexel University men’s basketball team (12-19) seemed finished.
Hosting the University of Delaware in an important Colonial Athletic Association game, Drexel needed the win, but it took a historic effort to make it happen. The Dragons would fight back with two double digit runs in the second half to claw away at the Fightin’ Blue Hens lead in order to achieve the largest comeback in college basketball history. With the Daskalakis Center rocking, Drexel’s head coach Zach Spiker earned one of the signature moments in his coaching career, and more specifically, his tenure in West Philadelphia.
"We always say, it's a great day to be a Dragon," Spiker said to Jeff Borzello of ESPN.com. "We said, ‘It's a great day for a comeback.’"
The victory stood, in the micro, as just another win, but in the macro, a flipped result could have shot Drexel to the CAA cellar and in a rough position to make a run in the league tournament. To be able to avoid a 19th loss (at the time) in the fashion that it occurred can give just the right boost before postseason play in what Spiker recognizes is a “one-bid league.”
With the undulations of what this season has brought, what was up next might have been a bigger challenge for Spiker’s team than being down 34 points: following up that unheard of win with another win, on Senior Day against UNC-Wilmington Seahawks, no less. On paper, that should not have been out of the realm of possibilities, as the team won two or more consecutive games three times already this season. Even with the streaky nature of this season (three sets of consecutive wins, five sets of consecutive losses), Drexel should have theoretically had the momentum on their side against UNCW, with junior Tramaine Isabell coming up one-assist-shy of a triple double as well as three other players looking to capture another double-digit point performance.
That, woefully, was not the case, as the visiting Seahawks went on a 20-7 run to start the game. In that stretch, Drexel was stuck with 3 points for almost five minutes. UNCW had a lead for the entire first half, despite only shooting 33% from the field.
At the half, it was clear Spiker would need to switch things up. Off the bench, senior Miles Overton and senior Tyshawn Myles did little in six minutes a piece and senior Sammy Mojica, one of his more reliable guards, was shooting 2-10 from the field.
“It’s hard when you want to honor your seniors … sometimes it messes with your rotations,” Spiker said in the postgame press conference.
Instead of relying on the senior starters, the focus would shift to Isabell and sophomore Alihan Demir to counter the fast pace of the Seahawks.
Drexel played the second half with a renewed vigor, outscoring their CAA foe off turnovers and 2nd chance buckets: key components in helping make it a two possession game for the last five minutes. Isabell would, in turn, go off for another impressive night: 29 points, eight rebounds, six assists, and two steals. Demir provided a spark off the bench in 28 minutes, going 7-14 from the field en route to a 16-point night.
What Drexel couldn’t stop, though, were UNCW’s fast breaks. Ever too often did UNCW’s junior Devontae Cacok either grab a missed Dragon shot and start a Seahawk sprint to the opposite basket or work it around until another teammate could drive for a score. A 16-4 advantage in that department gave the visiting team the padding they needed so when Drexel did make a comeback, there would be some room to work with.
“They were able to get out and run the floor,” Spiker said of the opposing team’s style. Admittedly, “they were more comfortable playing at that pace than we were.”
Ultimately, senior Jordon Talley’s jumper with eight seconds left sealed the deal for UNCW, but for as much as it felt like Drexel was down by early, getting back into the game showed the 1,000 or so fans at the DAC that there could be some more magic leftover from the Delaware game.
Unable to conjure up that magic again, Spiker’s team fell to 12-19 on the year and 6-12 in the conference. This defeat is not entirely terminating to the season, as there is still the CAA Tournament this week, but it did stand as a marker on Spiker’s young career at Drexel.
Coming from Army, Spiker brought with him successes that had not been seen at the Academy since Mike Krzyzewski and Bob Knight were coaches. He is the only coach in Army history to have four straight seasons of 15 or more wins since a run in the early 1920s. With his own triumphs, and the experience of serving under the likes of Gregg Marshall, John Beilein, and Steve Donahue, there is an expectation at Drexel for the program to be brought to the top of the league and hopefully the national spotlight.
A surge can come, as the pieces are in place. Working the transfer market to land a guy like Isabell is always a plus. Beating the #1 and #2 ranked teams in your conference at home is good. A well-aging upset like this year’s early one over Houston will do wonders if the team is in contention for a top seed in the CAA. What comes, then, is winning the conference games that need to be won, like those against Delaware, James Madison, and Elon, the league’s other bottom feeders. This year, Drexel went 3-3, a mark needing improvement. Better performance alleviates the pressures that come with the end of conference play (there were eight potential tiebreaker situations on the line this year).
What is next for this team is opportunity. Much can be made of the approaching conference tournament, but what Spiker and his staff need to have in mind, is that it is one game in a long line of games ahead and when building a program, every win counts.
-Drexel loses to Charleston in the quarterfinal of the CAA tournament