Joey Piatt (@joey_piatt)
Tessa Brugler held back tears as she answered questions following Drexel’s CAA championship game loss to archrival Delaware, one that shattered the Dragons’ March Madness hopes.
The graduate forward arrived in West Philadelphia after finishing her undergraduate career at Bucknell. After reaching the NCAA Tournament with the Bison her sophomore year, Brugler had come to Drexel for one final chance at March Madness. She wasn’t the only one hoping to end what had become a historic season with a chance in the dance.
Amy Mallon’s 2021-2022 team is composed almost entirely of upperclassmen, many of whom just played their last CAA game, a 63-59 loss to the Blue Hens which saw the league’s regular season champs trail from tip to finish, Delaware playing the game it needed to earn its first title since 2013.
Keishana Washington (above) and Drexel lost to Delaware in the CAA championship game on Sunday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
There’s the backcourt duo of senior guard Keishana Washington, a first-team All-CAA selection, and fifth-year guard Hannah Nihill, the 2020-2021 CAA Defensive Player of the Year. Then there’s Kate Connolly, Maura Hendrixson, and Mariah Leonard, a trio of upperclassmen pieces who fill important supplemental roles in Drexel’s rotation. Finally, there’s Brugler, who wasn’t even sure she’d have a final season at all.
“Back when COVID hit, I wasn’t really sure what my plan was going to be,” Brugler said.
Then, Brugler found Drexel, and alongside her five other upperclassmen, she became a part of Drexel’s dominant run through the regular season. The Dragons spent much of the 2021-2022 season dispatching their CAA opponents with ease. Drexel finished the regular season with a 24-4 record and the conference’s regular season crown. Mallon’s squad had also defeated every other CAA opponent at least once this year.
After James Madison left the CAA earlier this season, the conference tournament was moved to the Daskalakis Athletic Center. As a result, the Dragons entered this weekend with not just the best record, but also with the advantage of playing on their home court as they looked to defend their 2020-2021 CAA title.
When Drexel made quick work of its quarterfinals and semifinals opponents in Hofstra and the College of Charleston, the stage appeared to be set for the most storybook of NCAA Tournament clinching scenarios. On their court, in front of their fans, the Dragons would have the chance to secure their second-straight CAA title and punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
As if the lights couldn’t get any brighter, the Dragons’ opponent in the title game was the same Delaware team that Drexel had beaten in the championship the year before. A battle of the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the tournament would also be a rematch of the previous season’s biggest game. That was a fact that Mallon was well aware of heading into the contest.
“[With] a great team in Delaware, we knew it was going to be a battle,” Mallon said. “Nothing was going to be given to us. In those moments, you really have to take the game.”
The target was set on Drexel’s back heading into Sunday’s date with the Blue Hens, who were shaping up to be the toughest opponent the Dragons had faced thus far. The pair of teams have traded wins back and forth historically, with Delaware leading the all-time series 49-37 entering play this weekend.
The series has been especially contested in recent years; ater Delaware took both regular season contests in the 2020-2021 season, Drexel defeated the Blue Hens twice this season, an eight-point win in Philadelphia and a one-point victory in Delaware last month.
Stopping Delaware meant stopping the 2021-2022 CAA Player of the Year, Jasmine Dickey, whose 25.1 points per game were top in the conference. It would also mean beating them on the glass: per HerHoopStats, Delaware ranks second in the country with 17.1 offensive rebounds per game and seventh in the country in total rebounds per game with 44.3.
Tessa Brugler (above) had 17 points and eight rebounds in the loss. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Against a Drexel team whose weak point was on cleaning the defensive glass — Drexel’s 66.6% defensive rebound rate ranks 256th in the nation — Delaware seemed poised to capitalize.
Unfortunately for the Dragons, they couldn’t do either.
Dickey’s 27 points and 18 rebounds helped her earn Most Outstanding Player honors. On the glass, the Blue Hens outrebounded the Dragons 47-30. Delaware also pulled in three more offensive rebounds than Drexel despite taking nine fewer shots.
On the flip side, Drexel’s typically strong-shooting squad lost its aim. The Dragons finished Sunday with just four made three-point shots out of their 23 attempts (17.4%), out of character for a team that shot .306 from deep on the season. There were also several missed layups, including one by Nihill in the final 50 seconds with the Dragons down five.
“I think it was us missing shots,” Mallon said. “We actually had a lot of great opportunities. You look at the stats, [and] we had 63 shots at the basket.
“We missed those shots, and in big games, you have to make shots to win. I really think that is what we were missing a bit at times.”
It was in the third quarter that Delaware, up four at halftime, dealt the biggest blow to Drexel’s championship hopes. The Blue Hens outscored Drexel 17-7 in that quarter, with Dickey scoring nine of their 17.
“They gave us their best shot right from the beginning,” Mallon said. “We went right back at them and put ourselves in position. That’s what I’ve said to our team all year. We’re going to get everyone’s best shot, and they gave us their best shot.
“In the third quarter, we saw [that] when you’re missing shots at that point in the game, it’s hard to catch up.”
Drexel didn’t fold: with just over two minutes left to play, the Dragons mounted an 8-0 run to cut the lead down to three with thirty seconds left. A Delaware free throw with four seconds left, however, left Drexel down two possessions. It wasn’t until Keishana Washington’s last-second hail mary landed hopelessly amongst the Dragons’ spirit squad that Drexel calmly left the floor as CAA staff began to set up Delaware’s celebration ceremony.
Sunday’s loss will mean a trip to the women’s NIT tournament for Drexel. It will be a familiar destination for the program, with the Dragons having played in the NIT from 2015-2019. While the NIT still offers Drexel’s upperclassmen a few more games, it’s an underwhelming destination for a team that seemed capable of making a Cinderella run in March Madness.
Yet, Mallon isn’t viewing the NIT as a disappointment or as a sign that the Dragons’ success this season was all for naught. Instead, she appeared grateful as she delivered her postgame statement, which focused on the opportunities still ahead.
“We’re going to breathe in, we’re going to breathe out; no fear, no doubt,” Mallon said. “I think that’s been our saying. We know we have an opportunity to play on, and I think this team — just like they showed all year — they’re going to show up, and they’re going to give it their best shot.
“This team is a postseason team. They put themselves in the position to be in that top tier of teams.”
Even for Brugler, who’s not just playing the final games of her season but also of her career, Sunday was about more than the result on the court. The tears she shed were about more than missing out on the dance. They were about how this season has impacted her, as well as her Drexel teammates, and about how much she’s looking forward to making the most of her final minutes on the court, regardless of what games they come in.
“[This season] has been an amazing experience,” Brugler said. “It’s my family, and they’ve welcomed me with open arms. Knowing I’ll get another chance to step out on the court with my teammates is an amazing feeling.”