Zach Walton (above in Dec.) and Drexel have won five of their last six after handing William & Mary its first CAA loss. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)
PHILADELPHIA – Late in the first half, James Butler dove for a lost ball at the foul line with Drexel holding an impressive double-digit lead. The Dragons’ relentless big man didn’t recover the loose ball, but his selfless effort showed just why this season is different for coach Zach Spiker.
And this full-court, 40-minute effort enabled the Dragons to expand a double digit lead most of the game into a runaway 84-57 win over William & Mary, which was undefeated in the Colonial Athletic Conference.
Yes, Drexel is willing its way to wins.
“We played really hard, they are a really good team,” Spiker said as the Rolling Stones’ classic song “Happy” still blared from the overhead speakers as the 1,147 fans filtered out from the Homecoming Day game.
“We talk a lot about gratitude, respect, to compete,” continued Spiker on Butler’s hustle play. “You have to respect the process. If you want to have success, no one owns respect. It is rented everyday and you have to earn it.”
The Dragons (12-8 and 5-2 in the CAA) have been battling to earn the respect Spiker spoke so passionately about, coming into the matchup over .500 overall and in league play through 19 games for the first time since the 2011-12 squad was 14-5 and 5-2.
And, the last time the Dragons had been over .500 after 19 games was 2013-14 when they were 10-9 (2-4 in the league).
Although Drexel’s record now isn’t catching the eyes of any Top 25 voters, the records are still meaningful for Spiker, now in his fourth season.
“And that was a loose ball and that was a chance for us to earn it right there and rent it with success on that possession,” Spiker added about Butler diving for the foul line free ball. “We talk about it with our guys and that is one example of competing and it is a winning basketball play.
“And we also hit a lot of shots.”
Indeed, even with bruises on their elbows from scrambling for loose ball, the Dragons shot a blistering 54.5 percent from the field and 50 percent (9-for-18) from beyond the arc.
Senior swingman Zach Walton paced the Dragons with 23 points.
“We just go out there and compete hard every night and compete for one another and play for the program,” Walton said. “We just compete every night.”
Drexel fans also understood the magnitude of the victory, when at the end of this Saturday matinee on campus they tossed blue and gold streamers onto the Daskalakis Athletic Center court like the beginning of an old Big 5 game at the Palestra.
“Everyone is believes in each other and trusting one another,” Walton said.
Drexel has won five of its last six with home wins against the Tribe, UNCW, Delaware and Elon and a road win against James Madison and a loss at Towson in the momentum-building mix.
“This game means actually nothing as a down payment on success for another day. We will have to start all over and earn it again on Monday at practice,” said Spiker, a former assistant under Penn coach Steve Donahue at Cornell.
Spiker entered this season at Drexel 45-73 overall and was coming off a 13-19 season last year, including 7-11 in the CAA.
The play of sophomore Camryn Wynter (15.6 ppg, 5.3 apg) is a major reason for Drexel's improvement. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
There were signs, however, that Spiker was edging to turning Drexel around the corner to the winning side as the Dragons did increase their league wins in each of the last two seasons. And there was the 2017 win over Houston – a NCAA tourney team that year as well as a victory over LaSalle the following season.
Perhaps, though, the clue the Dragons were inching close to a winning season came in 2018 when Drexel overcame the largest deficit in NCAA history for a win when it came back from 34 points against Delaware here at the DAC. Actually, the fight in Drexel has been a constant as the Dragons have come back for 12 wins while trailing by double digits.
And, then there was much more than a hint this season could be different when the Dragons knocked off Princeton 82-76 the first week of December.
Another impactful element on Drexel’s winning ways this season is the continuity of Spiker’s staff as assistants Paul Fortier, Rob O’Driscoll and Justin Jennings returned for their fourth season.
But, like renting success, Spiker doesn’t bank on past improvements as a telltale predictor. He relies much more on the moment.
“And we had some guys who made some tough shots,” Spiker said, referring to the shooting of Walton, Camren Wynter (20 points) and Butler (17 points) against the Tribe.
William & Mary (14-6 and 6-1 in the CAA) arrived on a six-game winning streak and fresh off a nine-point win Thursday at Delaware.
“We didn’t think we would blow them out but everyone went out there and played our game,” Walton said. “We weren’t going to make it easy on them, that is for sure, we were going to compete.”
The Dragons won’t play in the DAC again until Feb. 6 when James Madison visits Philly.
“That was a great crowd for Homecoming,” Spiker said. “”Let’s have Homecoming in two weeks again.”
Until then, Drexel plays at Northeastern, at Hofstra and at Delaware – all teams with winning records - in its next three games.
“We won a couple, now we have to take this act on the road,” Spiker said. “Our league is difficult.
Butler, a rugged 6-foot-8 junior forward from Virginia via Navy, recorded his 13th double-double, and along with Tim Perry Jr. a 6-10 sophomore, banged down low defensively on Nathan Knight, a powerful 6-10 senior, who came into the game leading the nation in double-doubles with 15 and was averaging 20.3 points and 10.6 rebounds.
“He is a pro,” Spiker predicted.
Nathan did score 28 points, but he needed to take 22 shots from the field and he earned every bucket with Butler and Perry wrestling with him.
“Tim is at his best when he is physical,” Spiker said about Perry’s defensive effort and contributing four points and four rebounds in 11and a half active minutes.
When Perry, who played at Cherry Hill East in South Jersey, entered the game six minutes into the first half, Drexel lead 11-9. The spread bulged to 19-11 two minutes later. Perry’s father, Tim, played on the 1987-88 Temple Owls who were ranked No. 1 in the nation for two months and entered the NCAA tourney as the No.1 seed.
In the first half, Spiker’s motion man offense opened up a 31-22 lead with three minutes left in the first half on a Butler fade away baseline15-foot jumper. And then Walton drained a 3-pointer for a double-digit lead a minute later.
The Dragons carried a 34-24 lead into the final 20 minutes but Knight added a short jump hook. Walton answered with a 3-pointer on the next possession.
“My shot has been falling a lot lately,” said Walton, who shot 5-for-7 on threes and came into the game averaging 11.9 points. “I felt good.”
The 10-point lead remained midway through the second half and when the Tribe switched to a 1-3-1 half court zone, Coltrane Washington, a 6-4 sophomore guard, immediately drained a 3-pointer for a 60-48 lead with eight minutes left.
The lead bulged to 16 points on a pull-up jumper at the right elbow by Wynter. Then, a breakaway layup by Wynter padded the cushion to 20 points with under five minutes to play. The 6-2 sophomore guard sank a pair of free throws to make it 74-52 with 4:10 to play.
Drexel, which was selected 8-of-11 teams in the preseason poll, came into the weekend in fifth place in the NCAA. But now this promising season is pointing toward the CAA Championships in Washington, D.C. in the opening round on March 7 at the Entertainment & Sports Arena where Drexel is not only planning to bring a winning record, but also secure a top-four seed.
“I think,” Spiker said, “we have better basketball ahead of us.”