Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)
Drexel hadn’t been to the NCAA tourney in 25 years, so the Dragons didn’t seem to mind sweating out the final lengthy minute to make history.
And, after a trying season with a delayed start and multiple COVID pauses, Drexel can now mostly remember 2020-21 for what happened on the court and not for the myriad of challenges off the floor just to play.
On Tuesday night, the Dragons mounted a double-digit lead late in the second half and squeezed onto a 63-56 win over Elon for the Colonial Athletic Association championship to secure their first trip to the NCAA tournament in a quarter of a century.
“It means everything, it is why I came here,” said Drexel junior guard Camren Wynter, the CAA tourney MVP. “I did everything I could to bring a championship back.”
In the nationally televised game, Elon’s leading scorer Hunter McIntosh buried a 3-pointer to slice Drexel’s lead to 57-53. However, with 52.7 left, Mate Okros, who helped build the Dragon’s lead at the 3-point line, calmly stepped to the other line and sank two free throws to make it a two-possession game. Junior guard Juric Matey closed out the historic win at the foul line, making all four of his attempts in the final 10 seconds.
“I’m just really happy for the players and the assistant coaches,” Drexel head coach Zach Spiker said for the first of multiple times on a Zoom call. “I’m super happy for the guys in the locker room.”
Amazingly, this memorable win on the James Madison University court was Drexel’s fourth victory this season at the Atlantic Union Bank Center – one more than on their home court at the Daskalakis Athletic Center.
“DAC South,” Spiker called the friendly arena with a smile.
Drexel, the sixth-seed, prevented surging Elon, the eighth-seed, from making its first NCAA tourney appearance.
“We definitely had a good run in the tourney,” McIntosh said after scoring a game-high 19 points on playing four games in four days, “it was just unfortunate in the last one.”
Instead, the Dragons used timely 3-point shooting from Okros to go dancing for the first time since 1996 when Malik Rose led the Dragons to their only NCAA tournament win with a first round victory over Memphis before losing to Syracuse in the second round.
“Congratulations to Drexel and Zach, I know they hadn’t been in the NCAA in a long time,” Elon coach Mike Schrage said. “I have a lot of respect for Zach.”
Drexel (12-7) overcame playing just two of their nine league games at home and endured four cancelled CAA weekends due to the other team having COVID. A prelude to the uncertainty of the season to come, the Dragons' season opener against Penn State was cancelled due to COVID concerns, so instead the Dragons opened at Pitt.
“It was a long season with COVID,” Drexel swingman Zach Walton said. “There was a lot of doubt if we were even going to play.”
There was reason to believe Spiker’s fifth season would be special coming off of last season’s truncated 14-19 mark. It was the Dragons most wins in his tenure and he welcomed back four starters and 10 lettermen. Expectations were as high coming into the season as the emotions on the court after putting on the championship t-shirts.
The turnaround continues when Drexel will play the biggest game since before any of its current players were born, waiting to hear Sunday who it will play in Indianapolis.
“It’s a huge credit to Coach Spiker, turning the program around in a few years,” said Wynter, an All-CAA guard who finished with eight points.
In a game that matched two teams making their first CAA championship game appearance, Elon, which was riding a seven-game winning streak, shook off the nerves first with a 13-3 run for a 17-9 lead midway through the first half.
The Dragons received the spark they needed when Tim Perry Jr., a 6-10 redshirt junior from Cherry Hill East High School, came off the bench and immediately pounded the offensive boards to help Drexel go on 8-0 run to tie the game at 17-17.
Perry finished with a tied for team-best nine rebounds (six offensive) in just 10 minutes.
“He came in and gave us great energy,” Wynter said. “He gave us a spark when we needed it.”
Drexel surged in front as Okros drained his third three of the first half during a 9-2 run for 26-21 lead.
“Mate puts in as many hours shooting as anyone in the program,” Spiker said about the 6-6 sophomore forward from Hungary, who finished with a team-high 14 points. “He hunts his shot. When he hunts his shot, we are a better team.”
The Dragons pranced into the locker room just 20 minutes away from their first trip to NCAA tourney in 25 years when Walton, who averages 10 points a game, scored his first bucket on deep step-back three for a 32-27 lead.
“It was a big momentum play,” Walton said. “Elon was making a run and it gave us a little bit of momentum.”
In a cleanly played opening 20 minutes in which neither team attempted a free throw, the first foul shot was not until T.J. Bickerstaff toed the line at 15:50 in the second half and made one of two to add to Drexel’s lead at 41-34.
Then, Wynter pulled up for a floater in the lane to hand the Dragons their largest lead at 43-34 with 14 minutes to play in the second half.
Walton, who hit a foul line jumper early in the second half to pad the Dragons’ lead to 37-30, but he came down on his ankle and limped off the court, hit another 3-pointer for a 51-44 lead after getting his ankle taped on the bench with 7:45 left in the second half.
“I thought they made more plays and hit some key shots like Walton’s,” Schrage said.
Okros hit his fourth 3-pointer of the game for Drexel’s first double-digit lead at 54-44 with 6:30 to play.
“Okros’ four threes, and three in the first half, really hurt us,” Schrage said, “so, I give them credit for making those shots.”
With the double-figure lead, Drexel had to sweat out the closing minutes, but the wait was fleet considering it had been 25 years since the Dragons last went to the NCAA tourney.
“I hope this is a start of a new culture,” Walton said, “a winning culture at Drexel for years to come.”