Zach Walton (above, last season) and Drexel are in the CAA semifinals for the first time since 2012. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
The last time Drexel made noise in the Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball tournament, Frantz Massenat came up just short on a potential game-tying shot against VCU in a championship game to remember. That was nine years and two days ago — March 5, 2012, arguably the high-water mark of the Bruiser Flint era in West Philadelphia.
Ever since then, it’s been a series of disappointing seasons and postseasons for the Dragons, who’ve had a decade to forget following their narrow March Madness miss.
They’re 3-8 in the league playoffs over the last eight years, winning three different first-round matchups after finishing in the bottom four of the 10-team league during the regular season. Two of those wins have come under fifth-year head coach Zach Spiker.
So Drexel’s 80-75 victory over the College of Charleston on Sunday night in the CAA quarterfinals was more than just revenge over two earlier losses on the season. It marked the first time in nine years the Dragons have won a league quarterfinal game, the first time since most of their current roster was in elementary or middle school that they’ll play a league semifinal.
“I think we’re making progress, I think we’re making progress,” Spiker said. “But no one writes on their goal sheet ‘let’s get to the semifinals.’ So it just shows progress, but there’s work to be done in this building this weekend.”
Playing at James Madison’s new Atlantic Union Bank Center for the third time this season — more times than Drexel played in its own gym during league play — the Dragons got strong outings from its top four: junior guard and All-CAA First Team selection Camren Wynter (16 points/4 rebounds/4 assists), senior wing Zach Walton (17 points/3 rebounds), sophomore wing forward T.J. Bickerstaff (14 points/8 rebounds) and junior forward/All-CAA third teamer James Butler (12 points/8 rebounds).
Drexel (10-7, 4-5), the No. 6 seed in the conference, took a 12-point lead into the half against Charleston, then took every run the Cougars delivered in stride. Several times, Charleston cut the double-digit deficit down to five or six points, and each time Drexel was able to get it back to 10 or 11.
Unlike their Jan. 9 + 10 meetings, when the Dragons blew halftime leads of five and 10 points to lose by one and then five, Spiker’s group held strong and made the plays they needed to down the stretch.
“I think experiences make you learn and grow,” Spiker said. “The last time we played them, we were in some situations and I don’t know if we reacted the same ways we did today, and I thought we reacted in a better, veteran, more poised way as players. I credit our guys for recognizing a couple things, sticking with it, and trying to keep them off-balance a couple different ways.”
Walton hit the biggest shot of the evening, a 3-pointer from the right wing over the outstretched arms of a defender with the shot clock running empty, putting Drexel up eight with two minutes left.
Both teams traded shots for 90 seconds after that, until Bickerstaff came up with a key offensive rebound with under 20 seconds left and Drexel up five, forcing Charleston to foul. Payton Willis hit a 3-pointer for Charleston with seven seconds left to cut it to a three-point game, but Drexel junior Matey Juric (7 points) hit two foul shots to seal the win.
Walton’s clutch 3-pointer was the continuation of a trend that’s seen the fifth-year wing from Washington state reverse some early poor shooting at Drexel. A 40%-plus 3-point shooter in two years at Edmonds Community College (Wash.), Walton made only 26.5% of his 3-point attempts last year and only 25% during the first seven games of this season.
But the 6-foot-6, 220-pound wing shot 43.2% during the nine games of CAA play and was 5-of-6 from deep against Charleston, regaining the form and confidence he displayed at the junior college level.
“It was just getting extra shots up or reps in, getting extra confidence back shooting the ball,” Walton said. “I know at the JUCO level I was a great shooter from ‘3’ and I just had to get in the gym more and get shots up, and my teammates and coaches trust me to keep shooting, and that’s what I did.”
“I think he’s playing with confidence, and I think he’s having fun playing the game of basketball, and I don’t think that can be overstated,” Spiker said. “I’ve seen (his shooting ability), I’ve known it’s possible, just happy for him to see it and have some work outside of games show up for it.”
Walton certainly had extra time to work on his shot the last couple months. Coming into the postseason, Drexel had only played three games since Jan. 31, two games against Hofstra and one against James Madison. The Dragons had five different CAA weekends postponed due to COVID issues, but not one of those problems was internal.
“We’ve been getting a lot of time to work on getting the ball inside-out and our transition offense as well, and it showed today,” Walton said. “We’re going to try to keep going with that and we’ll make adjustments if needed.”
To get back to its first league championship game in nine years, Drexel has to get past No. 2 seed Northeastern (10-8, 8-2), which dispatched William & Mary 63-47 earlier in the evening. Drexel and Northeastern didn’t meet this season, their two late-January meetings postponed due to COVID and then never rescheduled.
The Huskies are led by 6-0 sophomore guard Tyson Walker (18.6 ppg), 6-7 freshman wing Jahmyi Telfort (10.8 ppg/3.9 rpg) and 6-6 junior forward Shaquille Walters (10.5 ppg/6.6 rpg), but were missing several players — including Walters — as they were coming off a two-week COVID pause when they played W&M.
If they get past Northeastern, they’ll play Tuesday night against either Hofstra or Elon. Drexel hasn’t won a league title since 1996, when it was part of the North Atlantic Conference, now known as the America East Conference. It joined the CAA in 2001-02.
“We’ve just got to keep going, can’t get too high on this game, can’t get too low for the next, just have to be ready to go,” Walton said. “We know Northeastern’s a great team, one of the best in the league, and I know our coaches are going to have ag reat game plan ready for us tomorrow and we’re going to be ready to go.”