Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Drexel’s women made their first public appearance of the 2021-22 season Friday night, giving Dragons fans their first in-person glimpse of the follow-up to the squad that won the 2021 CAA championship in March.
Sure, it was only an exhibition game against local D-II Chestnut Hill College, but with fans back in the stands and Calvin Hicks yelling “Defense, Dragons!” from the baseline, it certainly felt like hoops normalcy was returning to University City.
Here’s everything you need to know about the Dragons’ 61-25 win over the Griffins:
Bucknell transfer Tessa Brugler (above) gives the Dragons some serious frontcourt depth. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Dragons’ forward depth shines
It’s no surprise that Drexel’s backcourt is a strength: with all-conference performers Keishana Washington and Hannah Nihill back in the fold for their fourth and fifth seasons, respectively, Dragons coach Amy Mallon has one of the best guard tandems around.
Clear on Friday was that Drexel’s posts are worth worrying about too, from the rest of the CAA’s point of view.
Bucknell grad transfer Tessa Brugler (6-1) bolstered a group that already included returning starters Kate Connolly (6-1) and Mariah Leonard (5-10) with her arrival this offseason, and all three were in the Dragons’ starting lineup in their exhibition win.
Brugler was effective in 25 minutes of action, scoring nine points and grabbing five rebounds, adding in three steals, two assists and a block for good measure. Leonard, the team’s third-leading scorer a year ago, chipped in nine points and seven rebounds, while Connolly had six points and five boards in 20 minutes of work.
There were leak-out layups, post-up opportunities, and big-to-big passes off cuts for easy buckets, Chestnut Hill unable to do much about it.
“They’ve done a really good job of making me feel at home, and welcoming me, and I think that we’ve gelled really well on and off the court,” Brugler said of her fellow forwards. “We’re all best friends off the court, so I think that translates to the way we play on the court, and I think we did a really good job today of finding each other and working hard to get position so that we were able to make the right passes and (finish) on the glass.”
Brugler, a Nazareth Area product whose sister Talya is a freshman on the St. Joe’s roster, averaged a double-double as a senior with the Bison, putting up 13.2 ppg and 10.0 rpg in 10 games during the COVID-shortened season. Despite her recency to the program, her teammates voted her as team captain for her final collegiate season.
“We haven’t had, recently really, that post presence that’s efficient around the basket,” said Mallon, in her second year as head coach after 17 as a Drexel assistant. “We’ve had mobile post players, but...she’s able to score with her back to the basket, I think she’s comfortable getting the ball. That’s something as a coach I was excited about the opportunity to work with her.”
It wasn’t just the three starters who produced for Amy Mallon’s frontcourt. Junior Brianna Borcky (Garnet Valley), a 6-0 forward, chipped in eight points on 4-of-4 from the floor; classmate Hetta Saatman, a 6-2 post from Lancaster who started seven games a year ago, chipped in a bucket and a pair of rebounds in 17 minutes of play. Even freshman Sira Ba (Montreal, Que.) got in on the action, coming up with an assist, two rebounds and a block while just missing on two high-arcing 3-point attempts.
As a group, the forwards were 16-of-31 from the floor. Drexel outscored Chestnut Hill 40-6 in the paint.
“Forty points in the paint, that’s something you don’t see a lot of with us, but it’s something you want to take advantage of, and we did go bigger,” Mallon said. “I think we are going to be a little bit bigger in general this year in terms of [who’s] on the floor.”
Hannah Nihill, fresh off a field hockey season, had no issues readjusting to hoops. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
No preseason, no problem for Nihill
Speaking of Nihill, it’s hard to believe the Dragons’ star point guard is fresh off playing a full season of a completely different sport. Given the extra year of collegiate eligibility by the NCAA due to the COVID year, the Cardinal O’Hara grad decided to pick up her second-favorite sport, field hockey, and suit up for the Dragons in the fall before turning her attention to basketball in the winter.
Nihill appeared in 16 of Drexel’s 20 games on the turf, scoring four goals, which was good enough to finish tied for fourth on the squad. She last appeared in a field hockey game on Oct. 17 as she began to turn her attention back to basketball, the field hockey season officially ending on Halloween.
Friday night, back on the hardwood, it was like Nihill hadn’t missed a beat. The 5-3 dynamo and reigning CAA Defensive Player of the Year out of Cardinal O’Hara played 28 minutes and scored a game-high 15 points, with five assists against just one turnover, throwing in a couple steals for good measure. After a slow start, Nihill got into her rhythm during a second quarter that saw the Dragons turn a 13-7 edge into a 30-15 halftime lead, and by the time the third quarter was over (50-20) the outcome was well decided.
Her change-of-pace abilities on full display, Nihill was able to get to wherever she wanted on the court, and she threw in a few floaters while knocking down her only 3-point attempt (6-14 FG).
“I still sometimes watch her in awe, and wonder how she does this,” Mallon said. “She had some time away with her opportunity to play with the field hockey team, but she really jumped in — and I think that’s been one of the things, too, you know exactly what you’re getting.
“Having Hannah back certainly is exciting for us because you know what you’re going to get out of her and Washington.”
Washington, the defending CAA Tournament MVP, had an uncharacteristic offensive night, scoring only six points on 3-of-9 shooting, with six rebounds and five assists offset by six turnovers, though the 5-7 guard did put up the highest +/- (31) of her teammates.
Odds + Ends
— Three Dragons were unavailable on Friday night: senior guard Maura Hendrixson, sophomore forward Chloe Hodgets and freshman guard Momo LaClair, who was in a boot. Hendrixson is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in February; Mallon didn’t go into details on what exactly was keeping the other two off the court, though she said LaClair’s boot was “more of a precaution” and said “we’re hoping they’re going to be back on the court as soon as possible...they should be back on the court, all of them, fairly soon.”
Hendrixson, a 5-9 guard out of Garnet Valley, started 18 games last year before her injury, averaging 6.6 ppg and shooting 34.7% from 3-point range. LaClair, a 5-10 guard from Syracuse, had looked strong in practice and was in line to earn minutes backing up Nihill, while Hodges, a 6-0 forward from Australia, averaged 1.9 ppg in 11 appearances last year. Said Mallon about the trio: “they’re going to give us something more in the guard spot that we’re looking forward to.”
— The big news in the CAA this week concerns one of the league’s founding members, as James Madison University seems headed out the door. Multiple outlets in Virginia have reported that JMU is joining the Sun Belt, a press conference planned for Saturday morning. And while that move won’t be finalized for at least another season, it could have very real implications for the Dukes this year. James Madison is set to host the CAA’s women’s basketball championships in March, but the league has a provision which states outgoing members can’t host championships or participate. Their pending ban from doing so has drawn national attention and outrage on behalf of the Dukes’ current student-athletes.
“We’re still waiting to hear what the outcome’s going to be, whether they’ll have an opportunity to play or host the tournament, which we still haven’t had any confirmation on that,” Mallon said. “That’s something that’s going to come up and we know it’s going to be a topic of conversation at some point, but right now that’s what we know, as of today.”