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St. Joe's women stay perfect in big win over Drexel

12/04/2022, 6:45pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Saint Joseph’s women aren’t off to just a strong start, or even a hot one, or whatever other positive adjective you can throw out there. No, the Hawks are bordering on historical.

Talya Brugler (above) and St. Joe's are off to their best start in more than 35 years. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

A 69-49 win over Drexel on Sunday afternoon at Hagan Arena moved St. Joe’s to 8-0 on the season, marking the best start in Cindy Griffin’s 22-year tenure and moving within a couple wins of the program’s all-time mark: a 10-0 start back in 1984-85, three years before Griffin arrived on Hawk Hill — as a player. They’d previously been tied for the best start in Griffin’s tenure, when they also won their first seven in 2004-05, but are now off to their best start in nearly four decades.

“Eight is a big number for us, so we get more and more excited, but I would say we’re pretty consistent with the energy throughout,” sixth-year senior Katie Jekot said after Sunday’s win. “It’s great, and this was a really big win, especially for me, we haven’t beaten Drexel since I’ve been here. But I’m just super-excited to be 8-0, and this is just a great team to do it with.”

It’s a start that’s surprising but not shocking for a still-young Hawks’ squad, albeit one which improved throughout the 2021-22 season and made a run to the Atlantic 10 semifinals. Picked sixth in the A-10 this preseason, the Hawks’ women came into the fall confident, returning three starters including Jekot and a terrific sophomore class, then adding one of the city’s best freshmen in Laura Ziegler.

With each win, expectations inside the program and out of it will rise, especially if they can win two more — not only would that equal the program record, but it would mean taking out archrival No. 25 Villanova (7-2) on Saturday, along with Rider (3-4) on Wednesday. They’re still a long ways from equalling the program marks in season winning percentage (.857, 24-4 in 1977-78) or overall wins (26 in 1996-97), but this certainly has a chance to be one of Griffin’s best groups if they keep it up.

“It’s really awesome,” sophomore forward Talya Brugler said. “I think I said previously, another time, we’re not comfortable with where we’re at, we’re not satisfied, we still have a lot of things that we want to accomplish as a team, so we’re just trying to take it a day at a team, keep pushing every day and possibly be one of the best teams that comes out of here.”

“I think for this team in particular, it was important, just because we have so much youth still on our roster [...] to get off to a really good start and get the confidence,” Griffin said. “ So I think we’re still building that, we’re obviously very, very happy with where we are, but we still have some work to do, and we’ll be ready for whatever challenge comes our way.”

The Hawks were impressive against a shorthanded Dragons squad, leaving few areas of concern over the course of 40 minutes: they out-rebounded their visitors 37-24, shot 44.4% (24-of-54) from the floor and 42.9% (9-of-21) from the 3-point arc, with assists on 10 of their first 11 buckets and 17 dimes overall. The Hawks had the ball moving all game long, found open shooters and hardly forced a thing, committing 10 turnovers though it never felt like they were having trouble maintaining their flow.

Defensively, they made Drexel star Keishana Washington work hard for her 28 points, taking 27 shots to get there, and shut down everybody else. 

“I told the players in the locker room that they executed the game plan perfectly, both offensively and defensively,” said Griffin, honored before the game with a game ball commemorating her 400th win, achieved earlier this season. “We know that Drexel does a really good job of offensive execution and their percentages coming in were really, really high [...] just really proud of all of them, really.”

St. Joe’s built a double-digit lead in the first quarter, expanded the advantage to 16 at halftime and led by 18 going into the final frame, the outcome never in doubt from about the second quarter onwards. 

Mackenzie Smith is averaging 12.6 ppg this season after scoring 17 in Sunday's win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Mackenzie Smith led the way with 17 points, while Brugler (15 points, 11 rebounds) and Ziegler (10) joined her in double figures. The Hawks got production from everybody in their top eight, like eight points from Olivia Mullins, or nine points and four assists off the bench from Julia Nystrom; Jekot contributed four points, six rebounds and five assists; Jaden Walker and Emma Boslet combined for six points and four rebounds, with only one combined turnover in 31 minutes.

“They have someone at every spot who’s efficient in what they do,” Drexel coach Amy Mallon said. “Having an inside-out game puts them in a position to be efficient. If you have players inside that can score, and then players on the outside [...]  I think it’s really hard to guard teams like that, and if you catch them on a night they’re on, you’re going to be in trouble.”


Drexel clearly misses Lavelle against SJU

Washington, who entered play Sunday as the nation’s fourth-leading scorer (26.7 ppg), finished as the only player in double figures for Drexel (5-2), which was without second-leading scorer Kylie Lavelle (18.6 ppg) for the second straight game.

Sunday was certainly an indication as to how important Lavelle has been to Drexel’s offense through the first few games of her career. 

The freshman forward from Moosic, Pa.’s Riverside High had been on a tear through Drexel’s first six games, averaging 18.6 ppg and 5.6 rpg, including a 31-point outing in just her second collegiate contest. They were able to survive without her against Longwood on Wednesday, picking up a 74-61 win, but the 1-6 Lancers are a far cry from the unbeaten Hawks.

With Lavelle on the bench in sweats, the Drexel offense struggled mightily outside of Washington; at one point in the third quarter, Washington had 23 of Drexel’s 29 points, three other players with one bucket each. 

“Knowing how they play and the way they’ve done in the past, you knew they were going to be prepared to guard (Washington) so you knew people were going to be open,” Mallon said. “Unfortunately in that position today, we didn’t have a lot of people that we were able to get those shots and make them.”

Mallon didn’t give much information about Lavelle’s injury, acknowledging it was a “lower body” injury but otherwise not providing any details. It doesn’t seem like it should keep her out the rest of the season, but it also doesn’t sound like she’s necessarily right around the corner, either.

“It’s day-to-day with her,” Mallon said. “We’re hoping that she’s going to be feeling better and back to herself, but I’m hoping we have her back in time for conference [play].”

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