By Jared Leveson (@jared_leveson)
UNIVERSITY CITY – After a slow start, the Drexel Dragons are beginning to assemble the pieces early this season.
Playing good defense is always the expectation under head coach Amy Mallon. Still, the departure of Keishana Washington and Maura Hendrickson left some questions on the offensive side of the ball.
Those struggles materialized in their season-opening loss to Norfolk State, where the Dragons shot 39% from the field.
But Amaris Baker and Laine McGurk, brought into the fold this season, began answering those questions against city rival La Salle on Wednesday night at the DAC. Spearheaded by Baker and McGurk's career-high scoring nights, Drexel's unselfish offense and unrelenting defense dominated La Salle on both ends, winning 71-46.
"I think we saw in our first game a little bit of not (being able) to put the ball in the basket for many reasons,” Mallon said. “But I think tonight, just getting to see us, really everyone kind of stepping into roles where they need to do things. For me, the defensive end is never questioned, so I think this team is very tough and that they show up every day to play defense. ... But on the other end, to start seeing some things open, I think that's going to be really important for this team moving forward."
Drexel junior Amaris Baker drives on La Salle's Emilee Tahata. (Photo: Courtesy Drexel Athletics)
Baker, who graduated from Cardinal O'Hara and transferred from Harcum College after playing her freshman year at Kennesaw State, seems to have found the perfect fit at Drexel. The 5-foot-8 guard played her best game as a Dragon so far, shooting 8-of-14 from the field and scoring a career-high 19 points.
"There's nothing like home and Drexel… this is my home now," said Baker, who had O'Hara coach Chrissie Doogan and Harcum coach Riley Maye in attendance.
Like Baker, McGurk is a local kid recruited from West Chester Rustin, where she excelled, winning a PIAA District 1 5A championship and earning first-team all-state honors. Unlike Baker, however, her career night started on the bench.
She was in the zone early and went on a personal seven-point run through five minutes of playing time in the second quarter, further extending the Dragons' lead over their city rivals. The 5-foot-10 guard finished with 20 points on 9-of-12 shooting and six rebounds, following a 12-point performance in Drexel's 65-33 win over Delaware State. (To read more on her big night click here)
McGurk looked confident shooting in her home gym for the first time. She didn't play against Norfolk State. The freshman scored at all three levels and never hesitated with the ball.
"I think just with the confidence of my teammates that they have in me," McGurk said. "No shot was hard for me so I'm just gonna shoot. I know they all have my back."
"I think you're gonna see a lot more of her on the floor," Mallon added. "I know everyone is probably saying you probably should have put her in that first game. It's like earning that trust. I think she is continuing to do that. So I'm excited to see her continue to grow."
La Salle had a three-point lead early on, but Drexel regained it with 7:24 remaining and never looked back. The Explorers’ poor shooting performance and lack of effort prevented them from putting together any scoring run.
"We have a young basketball team," fifth-year head coach Mountain MacGillivray said. "There's going to be ebbs and flows. Drexel just out-competed us, and I really thought that with everything I've seen from this group, we were not going to be out-competed.
"We've been really awesome every day in practice. Just high intensity level, fighting for everything. But I think we just really got our butts kicked for every loose ball and rebound and you can't win basketball games when that happens."
La Salle shot 32% from the field and 10% from three and missed 18 consecutive threes in the second half. The Dragons held La Salle's upstart freshmen Nicole Melious and Aryss Macktoon to 10 and six points, respectively.
The Explorers were also outrebounded by Drexel 48-26 (14-7 on the offensive glass).
Their platoon substitutions for their fast-paced and high-pressure play style didn't affect the Dragons. They were patient on offense all night, going deep into the shot clock and moving the ball decisively. They shot 48.3% from the field as a team and only trailed once early in the first quarter.
Mallon's squad also totaled 24 assists. They combined for 27 assists in their prior two games.
"That just, to me, shows teamwork on the floor," Mallon said. "It's something we've been working on. It's not surprising to me, it's the way we play basketball."
Chloe Hodges, Brooke Mullin, and Jasmine Valentine executed at a high level on both ends of the floor.
Hodges, a senior from Australia, finished with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting and seven rebounds. When La Salle turned to a full-court press and ramped up the defensive pressure, the 6-foot forward placed herself in the middle of La Salle's press and picked it apart, dishing out five assists.
Mullin, a graduate transfer from Villanova, finished with four points, four rebounds, and five assists. Valentine, a senior from Maryland, collected six points, six rebounds, and two assists.
"I think it's hard to guard (Hodges) and Mullin at the same time because of the versatility," Mallon said. "I think Chloe really showed that tonight. This is really her first like full year back [from injury] and she's showing you exactly what we were looking for from her as a player coming into our program. She's going to continue to add those pieces and I think we really need that."
"I'm expecting…Valentine to be that force inside for us and really trade off time (with Hetta Saatman)."
Momo LaClair, a junior from Syracuse, N.Y., didn't light up the scoring column but pulled down six rebounds (four offensive) and tallied five assists. The 5-foot-10 guard is a tough matchup for opposing guards because of her length.
Drexel avenged last season's nail biting 77-74 loss to La Salle at Tom Gola Arena, where Kayla Spruill knocked down the go-ahead bucket with two seconds remaining.
Baker and McGurk aren't Washington and Hendrickson. They and the rest of Drexel's squad have plenty of work ahead of them. However, the team's performance on both ends of the floor indicates this team is beginning to feel confident and play together.
"What I'm liking with this team is that they are making that next pass a lot more and more people are ready to take the shots, and that's something you didn't see a lot of last year," Mallon said. "Just based on (that), we had [Keishana Washington] who could score a lot of points. But I think now they're seeing that, and that's what I'm hoping we continue to grow on moving forward."