Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome)
You’d be hard-pressed to find a hotter team in women’s college basketball than the Drexel Dragons.
And after knocking off Towson on Tuesday, there was only one team in their way of sole ownership of the top spot in the Colonial Athletic Association.
The Delaware Blue Hens were winners of four straight heading into Sunday and were seeking revenge against Drexel. Last year, Delaware topped Drexel twice in the regular season before Drexel got the last laugh when they clinched an NCAA Tournament bid by defeating Delaware in the CAA championship game.
Keishana Washington (above, in Nov.) has averaged nearly 21 points over Drexel's 11-game winning streak. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Even though last year’s history was important in the lead up to this game, Drexel head coach Amy Mallon wanted the team to have confidence in their recent play. And in their first matchup since that game, Drexel pulled out a 70-62 victory as they continue their climb up the mid-major rankings.
In the latest installment in the I-95 rivalry, speedy seniors Hannah Nihill and Keishana Washington led the way as Drexel picked up their 11th win in a row.
“[Delaware has] always been a rival team of ours, so no matter what, you’re always going to have that added sense coming into it,” Mallon said. “But my goal with this group was that we’ve been playing well enough that we should have confidence playing this team.”
Drexel (14-2, 6-0 CAA) came into Sunday at No. 15 in the latest edition of College Insider's mid-major rankings, and are now in sole possession of the top spot in the CAA. The Dragons have a path to even more success after knocking off the two top contenders for the CAA title this week, considering the Dragons don’t play a team with a winning conference record until Feb. 13, when they head to Northeastern.
“To us, there’s no ‘top teams.’ Every team that plays us gives us their best shot,” Nihill said about the team’s outlook moving forward. “We’re not going to take anyone lightly. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing and moving forward.”
Drexel came out on fire against Delaware (10-5, 4-1 CAA), with Washington leading the way, as she had her hands in 12 of Drexel’s 22 first-quarter points, scoring eight points and dishing out two assists.
Washington has been on a tear as of late, and after Sunday’s 21-point outing, the senior is averaging 20.7 points during the team’s 11-game win streak, which is the second-longest active streak in Division I. However, on Sunday, she picked up her second foul with 2:28 remaining in the first quarter and didn’t return to the floor until after halftime.
With Washington on the bench for much of the first half, Nihill kept the team afloat.
The Cardinal O’Hara product finished with 22 points and a career-high nine assists, all of which were necessary as Delaware’s Jasmine Dickey — who came into Sunday as the second-leading scorer in the country — was leading a comeback effort.
“Hannah really led the way today with her nine assists,” Mallon said. “These are the moments I would say she’s built for, and she really carries the team. We always go as our leader (goes), and I think she was spectacular tonight.”
“[Sharing the basketball] is so important…we all know that if I have it [Washington] is running, if [Washington] has it, we’re running,” Nihill said. “And Tessa [Brugler] has been doing a great job of knowing that she can make that run, and we’re going to give it to her every time.”
Dickey knocked down a mid-range jumper to give Delaware a 41-40 lead with 6:55 remaining in the third quarter, which started back-and-forth action that ended with the teams tied at 52 heading into the final frame.
Hannah Nihil (above, earlier this month) fell one assist shy of a double-double on Sunday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The Dragons, however, felt comfortable amongst the adversity because of the seniority across their roster, with four seniors and two graduate students.
“I think they were really focused,” Mallon said. “I think you can always tell when we’re huddled as a staff, and you look over and you see your team huddled, and you see your leaders are saying things in the huddle that are things that we would say.
“We have six seniors. I think they’ve been in so many different scenarios in their career, so we say ‘no doubt’ every day before we huddle up because in any situation we’re in this year, there should be no question we can handle it.”
Against Delaware, the Nihil-Washington duo came alive together in the fourth quarter after Washington re-emerged from foul trouble. The Dragons outscored Delaware 18-10 in the final frame, with Washington scoring 11 points.
“We really made sure we were locked in,” Mallon said. “The people who got the shots were the ones that we know can make them; Keishana Washington and Tessa Brugler did a great job stepping up to make shots.”
The guards were especially effective in the fast break, which is perhaps where Mallon feels the most comfortable.
“Whenever you see that Washington to Nihill connection on the fast break, I feel pretty good as a coach,” Mallon said about when she knew the momentum was on their side in the fourth quarter. “I’m going to miss it at some point when it’s gone, but it’s almost like slow motion when they do it. One of them comes up with the ball, and it’s like they just float it down to the other end.”
“They’re connected. They don’t even have to speak sometimes. I would say they’re like the yin and yang in terms of players and what they bring, but they balance each other so well.”
Another aspect that has led to the Dragon’s success this season is their defense. As of Sunday, their stifling 2-3 zone has been holding teams to 0.71 points per play (45th in the nation, according to HerHoopStats), leading to opponents only scoring 54.3 points per game (18th).
The defense's success is particularly impressive, considering they had to acclimate Brugler, the Bucknell grad transfer, into the center of their zone.
“I think just knowing the slides [in the 2-3 zone], with me and Kei up top and Tessa catching on really quickly in the backline of the zone, we’re all moving as one, and that really helps our defense,” Nihill said.
Brugler, a 6-foot-1 forward, has been an excellent fit for the Dragons. On the other end of the court, she gives them a post presence to go with their 1-2 punch on the perimeter.
“I always call Tessa the great equalizer to those two,” Mallon said, “Because she gives us that rebounding and scoring that takes the weight off of their shoulders sometimes.”
With momentum on their side, the Dragons will begin a two-game road trip on Friday when they aim to extend their streak against Elon.
“I’m just really proud of this team. We talk about the pieces of the puzzle coming together, and you’re continuing to see that,” Mallon said. “We might not have it all together, but together we have it all, and that’s how I feel about this team. We have all we need in place.”