Mitchell Northam (@primetimeMitch)
ELON, N.C. — Mariah Leonard is often not the first player on Drexel’s women’s basketball team that will be noticed.
Hannah Nihill has the ball in her hands most of the time, and creates highlights with her swift playmaking abilities and gritty defense. Keishana Washington is the team’s top scorer, often slicing toward the basket and finishing off nifty lay-ups. Tessa Brugler is one of the tallest players on the roster at 6-foot-1, and is an inside-outside handful for opposing defenses.
And then, as a game goes on, a fourth player starts to stand out. She’s setting screens to get her teammates open looks. She’s boxing out opponents much bigger than her. She’s grabbing offensive rebounds with ease. She’s making the extra pass to an open teammate. She’s drawing charges often. She’s involved in nearly every positive play for the Dragons.
Mariah Leonard (above) has been quietly having her best season yet for a succeesful Drexel squad. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
That player is Mariah Leonard, a fifth-year senior.
“She brings something that not many people would really see,” Brugler said of Leonard. “And it's like the little things, you know, drawing charges on the defensive end, finding an open player on offense. And it's been great. I love playing with her.”
Leonard rarely grabs headlines or stars on highlight reels, but quietly, as Drexel has won 13 straight games – the second-longest current streak in Division I women’s basketball – she’s become one of the most efficient players in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“Mariah Leonard is having the best year yet,” second-year Drexel head coach Amy Mallon said.
Numbers Never Lie
According to HerHoopStats, Leonard is shooting 61.4% from the floor in conference contests this season, which is the second-best mark in all of the CAA. Her 8.8 rebounds per-game in CAA play is sixth-best in the conference. Her points per-scoring attempt mark of 1.27 in CAA play ranks third.
The impressive stats keep going. Leonard’s effective field goal percentage in CAA play – also 61.4% – is third best in the league. Her 2.0 assist-turnover ratio is eighth-best among CAA players. And her offensive rating of 132.4 in conference games is highest among any player in the CAA.
Nationally, Leonard’s 3.7 offensive rebounds per-game is 27th best among all Division I players.
Since CAA play began this season, Leonard’s been at the top of her game. Part of that might be because she knows the curtains are closing in on her college basketball career.
“This is really my last time out,” Leonard said. “Every game, I just want to go out and give the best for not only my team and my coaches, but also myself. Because after this is done, I won't be putting my basketball shoes on. I’m giving it everything I got.”
Leonard (above) had two clutch performances as the Dragons won a pair of road games this weekend at Elon and W&M. (Photo: Mitchell Northam/CoBL)
Friday night at the Schar Center at Elon, Leonard helped the Dragons (16-2, 8-0 CAA) do a little bit of everything to erase a 10-point deficit and beat the Phoenix 72-60. She tallied nine points on 4 of 5 shooting, grabbed four rebounds, and also had two assists and a steal. She played 33 minutes, the third-most of any Dragon.
On Sunday, Leonard notched her third double-double of the season, helping the Dragons top William & Mary on the road in double overtime with 10 points, 11 boards, an assist and just one turnover in 42 minutes.
“I think I definitely kicked it into an extra gear,” Leonard said.
New Season, New Role
Drexel improbably made the NCAA tournament a year ago after upsetting rival and top-seeded Delaware in the CAA Championship game. They lost to Georgia in the first round of the tournament, but the Dragons reloaded for another run this season, bringing nearly every key player from last year’ squad back. The NCAA’s COVID-era ruling helped, as last season didn’t count toward a player’s eligibility clock. Leonard and Nihill are both playing their fifth seasons of college ball for Drexel.
Another fifth-year player for Drexel is Brugler, who joined the team this offseason via transfer from Bucknell. There’s no question that Brugler – a stout defender and versatile 6-foot-1 offensive weapon – was a boost to the Dragons. She was a two-time All-Patriot League selection for the Bison.
But adding Brugler meant that some Drexel players would have to take a back seat. Brugler needed minutes and shots, and those had to come from somewhere.
Leonard was a player whose role changed a bit because of Brugler’s addition. She’s attempting fewer shots this season and is often not the first option when Nihill is looking to feed the ball into the paint.
Leonard has been extra-efficient with her shooting this year, while continuing to put up strong rebounding numbers. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
But Leonard hasn’t complained one bit. She just adjusted.
“When Tessa first came in, our chemistry really started showing right in the beginning,” Leonard said. “I could find her easily; she could find me. I learned how to play off her, what she likes to do. And I really have enjoyed being able to have my little rebounding buddy down there. So, I know if I don't get it, she gets it, and vice-versa. I think that lets us be really aggressive on the boards.”
Leonard is making the most of every time she touches the ball now. Her overall shooting percentage on the season is the highest it’s ever been at 51.4%. And she’s also grabbing a career-high 8.1 rebounds per-game. In CAA games, she’s grabbing 3.3 offensive boards per-game – fifth best in the conference – to create more offensive opportunities for herself and her teammates.
Additionally, Leonard is averaging fewer turnovers than last season (1.1 to 1.3 per-game) and more assists (1.4 to 0.6 per-game). She’s also blocked eight shots this season, a career-best.
“I think she’s really learned how to play with Tessa,” Mallon said. “That’s her niche. She does the grunt work for us. She's taking the charges. She's doing the little things on the floor. And I've just been really pleased with how she stepped up into that role.”
In addition to her play on the court, Leonard is helping Drexel win with her words too. The Dragons typically deploy a 2-3 zone on defense, and that was something Brugler had to adjust to coming over from Bucknell. The player who has helped her understand it the most is Leonard.
“She's been really good with helping me with the 2-3 defensive rotations and talking me through things, being new,” Brugler said. “She's made my transition here really fun.”
One of the oldest players on the team, Leonard has been at Drexel since the fall of 2016. She redshirted her first season on campus and became a regular part of the rotation as a sophomore in the 2018-19 season, appearing in 27 games and leading the team in charges drawn. Leonard has led the Dragons in drawing charges in each of the past three seasons – a stat that epitomizes her defensive instincts, toughness and selflessness.
“I think I've always understood my role,” Leonard said. “And I feel like this year, my role changed a bit and I need to go out to the boards more, which is something I fully embrace because it gives my teammates more opportunities to get more shots on. I think I'm definitely okay with that new role. Tessa came in and has been doing a killer job.
“If this is what I need to do, I’m fully happy to do it.”
Drexel’s women’s basketball team has made two NCAA tournaments in its history. It has never made back-to-back appearances in the big dance. But the Dragons seem to be doing something special right now, and are in the driver’s seat to capture their third CAA regular season championship since 2018.
Leonard and the Dragons aren’t trying to look too far into the future though. They have lofty goals for March, but they’re also just enjoying the ride.
“It's been incredible,” Leonard said. “I've been here for a while, and I must say, this is one of my favorite seasons – playing with these ladies. It's a really amazing group.”