Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)
When her best player isn’t playing her best, Drexel head coach Amy Mallon doesn’t have to sweat it nearly as much as she did a year ago.
“We say it every day ‘we may not have it altogether, but together we have it all,’” Mallon said. “I think we have all the pieces, and they’re coming together.”
Hannah Nihill (above) hasn't put up the numbers she did last year, but the Dragons are filling in the gaps. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
A year after winning the Colonial Athletic Association championship, the Dragons have more depth on both sides of the ball, a talented core that’s showing they have a path to repeating.
Mallon’s rotation isn’t as top-heavy as it was before, even with several key pieces still sidelined due to injury. Last season, the Dragons heavily featured guards Hannah Nihill (16.3 ppg) and Keishana Washington (14.6 ppg), the team’s only two double-digit scorers.
Four games into the 2021-22 season, that number has doubled — and the ability to rely on even more scorers is certainly paying off for Mallon’s Dragons.
In Wednesday’s game against La Salle, Drexel had to rely on their experience as they fought off an Explorers’ rally at Daskalakis Athletic Center.
With under a minute remaining in a one-point game, the Drexel seniors made the plays that effectively put the game out of reach. Tessa Brugler rejected Kayla Spruill’s jumper, which set up a Dragons transition opportunity that Washington capped off with a bucket off a Nihill dime to extend the Dragon’s lead to three with 24 seconds remaining.
After the Explorers’ Amy Jacobs missed a 3-pointer, Washington was intentionally sent to free throw line. She made both free throws for her ninth and 10th points, icing the game while becoming the fourth Dragon to score in double figures in the 71-65 victory.
“Anytime two city teams play, this is the game you’re going to see,” Mallon said. “I’m really just pleased with our team coming up with this win because it was gutsy we had the lead, La Salle made a run, they went ahead and how we stayed calm, and that goes with our leadership.”
Drexel’s scoring variety has been noteworthy this year. With Nihill (11.0 ppg) still getting her basketball feet back under her after focusing on field hockey during the fall semester and Washington (11.0 ppg) not shooting the ball at her typical clip to open the year, it’s been the Bucknell grad transfer Brugler (16.0 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and senior Mariah Leonard (11.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg) who have filled in the gaps.
Tessa Brugler (above) continued her terrific start to the season with a 17-point, 11-rebound, six-block outing. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Brugler led the way against La Salle with 17 points; Leonard added 11, while Washington and senior wing Kate Connolly each popped in 10, a season-high for Connolly.
Coming off of a 19-point City 6 debut against Saint Joseph’s, Brugler continued to impress early in her first year with Dragons. On Wednesday, the 6-1 forward was dominant inside on both ends of the court, racking up 11 rebounds, three steals, and six blocks to go with her points. Brugler’s nine blocks through three games are more than the whole team had at this point last year, so her defensive prowess has been appreciated.
“Defense has been a big thing for me. It’s something that I’ve tried to develop over the past five years,” Brugler said. “I think that the stops are important. We need those when things aren’t going our way on offense.”
Brugler was the focal point of Drexel’s offense early, scoring eight first-quarter points helping lead the team to a 57% start from the field in the first half. But after La Salle started applying full-court pressure in the second quarter, the Dragons had a hard time getting the ball into the former first-team all-patriot forward.
“Nothing was working, so we switched to [the press],” La Salle head coach Mountain MacGillivray said. “We call it our changeup, when we can’t locate the fastball, and we’re not hitting our spot, we go to it and hope it works, and if it does, we stick with it, and that’s what happened tonight.”
The trap forced the Dragons into five second-quarter turnovers, which contributed to the Explorers cutting into the lead. It didn’t help that Nihill — a fifth-year senior due to covid-19 eligibility rules — picked up her third foul with 9:32 remaining in the half.
In her absence, junior Tori Hyduke came into the game for relief and provided a spark and skillset that the Dragons were missing up until that point. Playing her first minutes of the season, Hyduke hit two threes in the quarter and provided spacing for a team that scored 38 points in the paint and only attempted 10 threes during the whole game.
Hyduke finished the night with eight points (3-4 FG, 2-3 3PT) in her run as Nihill’s replacement, her first action of the year.
“It’s something we’ve kind of been waiting for. We know what [Hyduke] is capable of doing, so we’re hoping we can keep pulling that out of our bench,” Mallon said.
Mallon’s bench should continue get deepen in the coming weeks. The Dragons are still waiting on the return of senior guard Maura Hendrixson, who averaged 6.6 ppg in 18 games last year before tearing her ACL; freshman guard MoMo LaClair, who looked strong in preseason practices, has been sidelined with an injury as well.
Even with the additional depth that this year’s Dragons team has once crunch time came around the Dragons knew who to go, the backcourt duo that led them to a CAA title last year: Nihill and Washington.
Mariah Leonard (above) has upper her scoring from her junior to senior year. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“I’ve been in these situations for the last four years in a bunch of games,” Washington said. “I know [my teammates] trust me with the ball, and I can make a play.”
But while the CAA defensive player of the year was out the Explorers used the second quarter to claw back into the game. La Salle cut the lead to four at the end of the second quarter when Molly Masciantonio made a half-court buzzer-beater to end the half.
The difference was still four points heading into the final quarter, which saw six different lead changes before Drexel finally pulled away at the end. Washington and Nihill scored their team’s last nine points to seal the win.
“[Nihill] is your go-to player just like Keishana Washington. They have proven to be one of the best backcourts for us,” Mallon said. ”In those moments, I’ll always say I want the ball in either one of their hands.”
The win pushes the Dragons to 2-1 on the season, with both victories coming against city rivals. They head on the road for the first time this year as they take on Maryland Eastern Shore (2-1), whose two wins came against small-college opponents, on Saturday.
“When you’re in this city and you play these games they mean everything,” Mallon said. “I think getting those two of three games off the bat was really important momentum for us heading into this weekend.”