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Brugler, Smith lead Saint Joseph's past Drexel to stay unbeaten

11/19/2023, 9:30pm EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Pandora’s Box was filled with evil and harmful spirits, their release a torment upon the world, problems everywhere. In that sense, the Saint Joseph’s women are indeed a Pandora’s Box, for their opponents.

Each time the Hawks take the court, something different comes out, equally frightening and difficult for whoever faces them. One game it’s interior production of Talya Brugler and Laura Ziegler, another’s the slashing of Chloe Welch and Gabby Casey, another the shooting of Mackenzie Smith and Julia Nyström. Or any combination of the above. 

Talya Brugler (above) goes to the bucket in St. Joe's win over Drexel on Sun, Nov. 19. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

It was an inside-out duo that emerged on Sunday at the Daskalakis Center, as Brugler and Smith led the way in a 64-53 win over Drexel. 

It’s pick-your-poison with these Hawks. The Dragons, undersized up front, had no choice but to play aggressively against Brugler and Ziegler, and the Hawks’ posts took advantage. 

Brugler, a preseason All-Atlantic 10 First Teamer, had her best game of the season. The 6-foot-1 Nazareth (Pa.) product led the Hawks with 26 points on an efficient 10-of-16 from the floor, adding 10 rebounds for her first double-double of the season.

“I think it was definitely obvious today that they were fronting our post players, and for us guards it’s easier for us to throw over the top and [create] easy layups for them,” Smith said. “But I do think you’ve got to feel the game out [...] whether that’s [if] they’re fronting our posts, we can throw over the top, [if] they’re hard denying our posts, what are they going to do with the guards?”

When Drexel adjusted, the ball moved outside. 

Smith, the 5-11 sharpshooter, scored all 18 of her points in the second half. She was 0-for-4 in the first 20 minutes but knocked down her first three shots — all triples — in the third quarter, helping St. Joe’s expand its edge from six at halftime to 11 going into the final frame. 

That’s the danger of this St. Joe’s squad, which has even more offensive options than it did a year ago. Brugler, Smith, Welch and Ziegler entered play Sunday averaging more than 12 ppg, the quartet taking turns going off. Brugler, Smith and Ziegler all returned from last year; the addition of Welch, a 5-10 Davidson transfer, made them so much more dangerous.

Mackenzie Smith (above) scored all 18 of her points in the second half. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“It’s really hard [to defend],” Drexel coach Amy Mallon said. “They spread you out and you have to be on point defensively with what you’re doing. If it’s not one person, it’s someone else stepping up and scoring for them, which makes it more difficult as well.”

"I think we have a lot of weapons on the offensive side,” said Cindy Griffin, whose 23rd squad set a new personal best by holding their first four opponents to a total of 196 points, third-best in program history. “There’s been games that our posts have stepped up, there’s been games that our guards have stepped up. Having that balance is very necessary if we want to go far in non-conference and also in our conference play.”

Credit to Drexel for hanging around longer than it should have after St. Joe’s went up 17 late in the third on Smith’s third triple. The Dragons clamped down defensively and wore away at the edge, getting within seven with four minutes to play. 

There was no game-winning run from the Hawks, just a defensive response of their own. Smith started attacking the bucket, getting a few layups and a few foul shots to help push the lead back to 10, a pair of Brugler foul shots making it a 12-point edge with 77 seconds to play.

That was enough to get St. Joe’s looking forward to Temple, its opportunity to move to 2-0 in Big 5 play coming on the road Wednesday.

St. Joe’s is no stranger to fast starts. The Hawks won their first nine last year, though Atlantic 10 play proved to be more difficult; they finished 20-11 (9-7 A-10), expectations rising in the offseason. 

“We had a taste of what that was like last year, and we knew that momentum helped us going into A-10s and the strength that we had from that,” Brugler said. “It’s similar in a sense that we know that we want to keep going more, we don’t want to settle as a team. We can’t be happy with four-and-oh.”


Mullin reaches career high; McGurk continues to produce

Mallon brought in Villanova grad transfer Brooke Mullin this offseason to bring a little extra experience to the roster. But she was also counting on something Mullin didn’t do much of at ‘Nova: be a go-to scorer. 

Brooke Mullin (above) had a career-best 17 points for Drexel. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

In four years as a Wildcat, Mullin never averaged more than 4.8 ppg for the season; as a senior, she averaged 3.5 ppg despite being a full-time starter, averaging more than 26 minutes per contest. Through the first three games as a Dragon, Mullin only had a total of 17 points, though that 5.7 ppg average was still a career best. 

She equaled that total Sunday, scoring 17 points on 8-of-17 shooting, an unprecedented level of offensive involvement for the 5-11 Neshaminy product. Mullin was attacking the rim, knocked down a few midrange jumpers and popped in a 3-pointer, leading the Dragons in points and shots taken.

Mullin’s previous career best was a 16-point outing on Dec. 1, 2021 against Lehigh. She scored 11 points four days later in a loss to Creighton and hadn’t hit double-digits since, a span of 65 games. 

“We talked about her responsibilities with this team this year and they’ve definitely multiplied from her past years,” Mallon said. “That’s something you want to see because I think it’s something she’s capable of doing, it’s something we’ve talked about [...] I’ve seen that in the preseason, but it’s the first game you’ve really seen that production from her on the floor.”

The Dragons have also gotten a nice offensive boost from freshman Laine McGurk, who contributed 10 points off the bench on Sunday. The West Chester Rustin product didn’t see a minute in the team’s season-opening loss to Norfolk State, the Dragons’ coaches hoping to bring her along defensively before they relied on her to play big minutes, but their offensive struggles in that opener led to her seeing time. 

She scored 12 points in 14 minutes at Delaware State and followed that up with 20 points in 19 minutes against La Salle. She’s now averaging a team-high 14.0 ppg on .563/.500 shooting splits, and has yet to commit a turnover in 48 minutes. Even if her defense still needs some work, that’s too much production on the other end to ignore. 

“When you have a player who can do that off the bench, that’s something you have to take into account as you start doing your rotations,” Mallon said. “She’s really proven in the last few games that she’s capable of doing that, so I can’t see why she wouldn’t continue doing that and why we wouldn’t want her on the floor.”

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