Justin Procope (@1procope)
The Drexel men achieved a double dose of history Saturday afternoon.
Fourteen years to the day since their last meeting, the Dragons defeated No. 18 Villanova 57-55 in the fifth-place game of the inaugural Big 5 Classic tripleheader. The win was not only their first as a member of the Big 5, but their first win over a top-25 opponent since 2010, moving them to 5-3 on the season.
Drexel forward Amari Williams goes up for a shot against Villanova on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
The Dragons played well on both ends all afternoon, but with six seconds to go and clinging on to a two-point lead, the game was still very much in the balance. Out of a timeout, Villanova guard Justin Moore drove the lane and tried to hoist up a left handed floater before being met with a volleyball-esque spike of a blocked shot from Drexel big man Amari Williams, his fifth and most important of the evening.
“It’s a very, very special day for our basketball program, for our university, for the Drexel community, and for the people that have played in the past but never had this opportunity to shine,” head coach Zach Spiker said afterwards.
With Nova looking to bounce back after an upset loss to St. Joe’s on Wednesday, Spiker knew this game would be a battle, but made sure his team was not afraid of the moment.
“We weren’t in awe at all,” Spiker said. “We talked a lot about gratitude, respect, compete… but today was respect all, fear none.”
That attitude showed itself right from tip-off, as the Dragons quickly asserted themselves on the interior. Williams, who leads the team in scoring (14.8) and rebounding (8.1) , had three blocks in the first half. The CAA Defensive Player of the Year the last two seasons led the charge, as Drexel never allowed Villanova to get into a rhythm offensively.
The problems against the zone that plagued the Wildcats against St Joe’s showed up once again in the opening 20 minutes. They struggled to punish Drexel from the outside, going 4-17 from three in the first half and 8-28 from the field.
“You run a zone for a couple of different reasons,” Spiker said. “Maybe just to save some wear and tear or limit their ability to be effective close to the basket and contest threes.
“Look, I don’t think you’re going to stop them from taking threes,” he continued. “If they make them, they’re going to win and if they miss, then it’s going to be a different game and today was a different game.”
Drexel wing Lucas Monroe goes up for a shot Saturday against Villanova. (Photo: Gavin Bethell/CoBL)
The Dragons showed poise and patience on offense, not allowing themselves to be sped up by Nova’s press. They stuck to their methodical, offense-by-committee style offense that generated open looks and allowed their shooters to take advantage, hitting four out of eight 3-pointers to take them into the locker room with a 26-25 lead.
The Dragons picked up right where they left off in the first half, turning patient offense into open looks from the outside, knocking down two in the first minute of the second period.
Williams continued his standout performance in the second period, with another big block and brought the Drexel student section when he banked in a three-pointer at the end of the shot clock to push the lead to six. Minutes later, he ripped down an offensive rebound over Nova forward Eric Dixon (21 pts) before a thunderous two handed dunk.
“You don’t really get to play a big like him every day,” said Williams. “But just taking it like any challenge, I think that’s where I stepped up most.”
Sophomore guard and second leading scorer Justin Moore (not to be confused with Nova’s own Justin Moore), gave the offense a boost in the second half as well, scoring all seven of his points in the period. The magnitude of this moment was not lost on the Archbishop Wood product.
“It definitely means a lot,” Moore said. “You grow up playing with other kids from the city on those teams. So it means a lot to go out there and compete against them.”
For a team with an offense ranked 245th in offensive efficiency per KenPom, the Dragons were able to capitalize on the looks Nova gave them, shooting 24-49 (49%) from the field and 8-16 (50%) from deep. After Moore assisted Luke House’s third three of the game, Drexel opened up their biggest lead of the night, leading 50-42 with seven minutes to go. House finished the game with 11 points, good for second on the team.
That lead proved to be enough as Drexel were able to hold on through the strength of their defense, a consistent theme for them this season. After coming up short in close games in their first two Big 5 matchups against Temple and La Salle, to breakthrough against a team like Villanova is a special moment for this program.
“These guys made a memory for themselves, they were a part of something bigger than themselves,” said Spiker. “People at Drexel are going to remember where they were when Drexel beat Villanova in the Wells Fargo.”
It was quite the introduction to the Big 5 for Drexel, who will face another test when they welcome Princeton on Tuesday. For Nova, they will try to shake off a humbling winless performance in the Big 5 as they travel to Kansas State for their next contest. The game was historic in many ways for Drexel, but Spiker is excited for what this means for the Big 5 going forward.
“This is a great day for Philadelphia basketball,” Spiker said. “This is exactly what those who have decided to make this event happen envisioned.”