Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
UNIVERSITY CITY — The milestone Zach Spiker’s Drexel team accomplished on Saturday afternoon was a minor one. However, for a coach in his seventh year, it seems like it might be significant — a tangible sign of the growth he’s made during his tenure.
Following the program’s first winning conference season in a decade last year — and first such time under Spiker — Drexel is out to its best start in conference play of the Spiker era.
A 77-74 overtime win over Delaware at a packed Daskalakis Athletic Center on Saturday pushed the Dragons to 12-8 overall and 6-2 in the CAA
“I think we just focus on being 1-0,” Spiker said after the win. “We’ll enjoy the heck out of this game and tonight. … We’re just gonna try and go 1-0 Thursday at A&T. I think that’s been our mindset. We talk about why we’re gonna win. We address why we might lose too and then we just get to the next one.”
“These guys bring the right mindset. Coaches can help set a tone, but it's the players that carry the culture, and I thought we had really strong moments of that today.”
Drexel freshman Justin Moore had a career-high 21 points on Saturday against Delaware. (Photo: Owen McCue/ CoBL)
It doesn’t take too much digging to figure out what’s been the key to this Dragons’ team success this season. They entered Saturday with the 14th ranked scoring defense in Division I and currently rank as the top defense in the CAA (61.0 ppg). They ranked last in the category in Spiker’s first season in University City (9-23, 3-15 CAA).
After the Dragons’ defense let them down in the final minutes of the game — in part due to some tough shot making by Delaware — it rose to the occasion in the extra period.
Delaware forward Jayare Davis (28 points) split a pair of free throw line to put the Blue Hens ahead before Drexel junior forward Amari Williams scored the lone field goal of overtime with 3:15 left.
Williams followed with two clutch blocks — one with 1:09 to go and one with 21 seconds left — and finished with five stuffs in the game.Luke House knocked down a pair of free throws after the second block to push the Dragons’ lead to three. Drexel made two stops on the final defensive stands before celebrating a third straight win after holding Delaware to just one point in OT.
“WIth defense, it’s just something I’ve got to do,” Williams said. “Offense isn’t always there, but as a team we’re great defensively, so I think that’s a big thing we kind of work on.”
Drexel has only allowed five teams to score more than 70 points in its first 20 games — two of them coming in the last two wins over Hampton and Delaware.
Williams is a centerpiece of Drexel’s defense, averaging 2.2 blocks per game and leading the team with 29 steals. Junior guard Jamie Bergens is a consistent pest off the bench, tallying three steals on Saturday. House, senior Coletrane Washington and freshman Justin Moore also came away with swipes and had some terrific defensive possessions.
“The game is about stops and about defense and it came down to it, and we had a great stand there late a couple times really,” Spiker said.
There was a full crowd on Saturday at the DAC for Drexel's win over Delaware. (Photo: Owen McCue/ CoBL)
The Dragons relinquished a 67-60 lead with five minutes to left as Davis and Jameer Nelson Jr. (21 points) made shot-after-shot down the stretch. Nelson Jr. hit a stepback with 49 seconds left in regulation.
Moore (21 points) hit a pair of free throws to put the Dragons back ahead before Davis split a pair of free throws with 25 seconds to play to tie and a Dragons turnover and Blue Hens heave sent the game into OT.
Moore, who is averaging 9.1 ppg on 37 percent shooting, had a career high in points on 6-of-13 shooting. He seems to have figured things out with four straight double-figure outings, shooting better than 45 percent from the floor in three straight Drexel wins.
“I feel like since the beginning of conference play I’m starting to get more comfortable,” Moore said. “I was coming off COVID, so it kind of messed my rhythm up. I’m just getting back, getting comfortable and my teammates and coaches are allowing me to be myself and be aggressive and play through my mistakes.
“As a freshman, you have ups and downs, but at the same time they trust in me and they believe in me. We got to war at practice everyday and we had each other’s back every time. It makes you feel more comfortable and have more confidence when you have people backing you all the time.”
Prior to their current 6-2 mark, the Dragons’ best start in conference play under Spiker was when they started 5-2 (5-3 through eight games) in 2019-20. That squad lost 10 of its last 11 games, including the final seven CAA games.
The Dragons are currently tied for second in the CAA with Hofstra and Towson, behind undefeated College of Charleston (21-1, 9-0), which won its 20th straight game on Saturday and is ranked nationally. Drexel’s only played one of the other top four, falling to Towson, 64-58, on the road Jan. 5.
Drexel plays at NC A&T (5-4) next Thursday and at Elon (0-7) on Jan. 28 before hosting Charleston and seeing how it stacks up against the conference’s best.
Spiker and his squad won’t take any of the victories for granted. He’s found out how hard they are to come by in seven season. Saturday was a big one, and the Dragons hope there are many more to come.
“Don’t matter who's playing. If it’s a CAA league game, it doesn’t matter where it’s played, it's going to be a one possession game,” Spiker said. “This one happened to be a one-possession game from the 10-minute mark in the second half. … What a crowd, what a great basketball game. I’m glad people got to see the DAC rocking … and I couldn’t be more proud of this basketball program, this team and how we responded to adversity today.”