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Drexel women capture CAA championship, off to Texas

03/17/2024, 10:15pm EDT
By Rob Knox

Rob Knox (@knoxrob1)

Ankle braces, a blue knee sleeve, and bandages keep Drexel sophomore guard Grace O'Neill from falling apart. However, when it mattered most, toward the end of the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) championship game against Stony Brook, O'Neill kept the Dragons together with her steadiness, clutch free-throw shooting, and tenacity.

The ball found O'Neill's hands a lot during the final minutes of the seventh-seeded Dragons' 68-60 victory over top-seeded Stony Brook at the Entertainment & Sports Arena on Sunday night. 

Her statistical accumulation of seven points and three assists doesn't do justice to the impact of the aggressive guard, especially during Stony Brook's 10-0 fourth-quarter run that sliced the Dragons' lead from 14 to four with 45 seconds remaining.

She rolled her ankle earlier in the CAA Tournament. As she spoke during a postgame interview, O'Neill showed off another souvenir of battle with a cut on her tongue. It didn't matter to her. She endured the pain if it meant accomplishing their goal of becoming the second consecutive No. 7 seed to win the CAA Tournament.

Drexel's women celebrate winning the 2024 CAA Tournament Championship. (Photo courtesy Coastal Athletic Association)

"My trainer strengthened my ankle, and it was good for the rest of the tournament," O'Neill enthusiastically shared in the hallway outside the jubilant Drexel locker room. "I feel great, though. My cuts and scrapes are because I am always on the ground, though. Being a smaller guard, I am always ready to battle against bigger girls. I love being aggressive."

Drexel fed off O'Neill's energy, overcame significant foul trouble in which five of the seven players who saw action finished with four fouls, and a talented Stony Brook squad to win its second CAA Tournament championship in four years and second under head coach Amy Mallon.

The Dragons (19-14) led wire-to-wire. They will represent the conference in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 16 seed against top-seeded Texas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament after earning the league's automatic qualifying berth.

In the final 51 seconds, with Drexel clinging to a 64-60 edge, O'Neill made a steal, made two free throws, and secured a clutch defensive rebound in traffic with plenty of taller Seawolves battling for the ball with 22 seconds remaining. O'Neill also fueled a Drexel defensive effort that limited Stony Brook to 30.6 percent (19-62) shooting in the game and 24.1 percent (7-29) in the first half. 

"Ever since I was little, I have been very aggressive and competitive," O'Neill said. "I've always been very scrappy. Rebounding and defense have been staples of my game. When shots don't go in, I know my defense is always good to fall back on. We practice being gritty and tough. They read out the stats in practice, and it fuels me, especially when they say who has the most rebounds or most steals. My coaches and teammates instill confidence in me." 

Junior guard Amaris Baker paced Drexel for the fourth straight game, scoring a game-high 19 points, and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the 2024 Championship. Baker averaged 19.8 points per game during the four-day run. Graduate guard Brooke Mullin added 16 points in the title game and joined Baker on the All-Tournament team, and senior guard Erin Sweeney provided a lift off the bench with a career-high 16 points on Sunday.

Former Drexel standout Keishana Washington (L) presents Amaris Baker with the 2024 CAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player award. (Photo courtesy Coastal Athletic Association)

Mullin scored 13 points in the first half to help Drexel lead 36-26 at halftime. Sweeney scored nine points in the third quarter, which Baker finished with a flourish when she swished a 3-pointer from the corner as the buzzer sounded. Senior forward Chloe Hodges, who had the winning basket in the semifinals against Towson, finished with seven rebounds and six assists for Drexel.

Sweeney picked the perfect time to score a career-high after missing eight games midway through the season. Since returning on Feb. 25, she has scored in double figures three times. 

Sweeney scored consecutive baskets in the third quarter after the Seawolves cut a 10-point halftime deficit to six points. Later in the quarter, Sweeney made two foul shots after Stony Brook closed to within 43-40 with 3:10 remaining. 

She also made a 3-pointer that bounced on the rim and dropped through the net, giving the Seawolves a 48-42 lead late in the third quarter. Baker made a 3-pointer from the corner as the buzzer sounded, giving Drexel a 51-42 lead entering the final quarter.

However, Sweeney's most significant moment of the game was grabbing a critical offensive rebound with 80 seconds remaining. Even though Drexel didn't score, it enabled the Dragons to eat more time off the clock.    

"I knew we needed scoring in the third quarter, so I just had to take the shots confidently and do whatever we needed at that time, no matter what it was," Sweeney said. "I wanted to do whatever I could to help my team today. We knew it wouldn't be an easy road to the championship. We have confidence because we drill things like that every time in practice. We are prepared and know what to do. We all believed in each other, and that made a difference."

Meanwhile, Baker's increased production has also made a difference. She's shined in the Dragons' last ten games, averaging 16.9 points per outing, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game while shooting 53.4 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from 3-point range. 

Erin Sweeney had a career-best 16 points in Drexel's championship. (Photo courtesy Coastal Athletic Association)

The Dragons' "Because We Can" rallying cry fueled them during this memorable run. Assistant coach Kayla Bacon changed the phrase after the championship became official to “Because We Did.”

"Hearing that message from Amy, I said I am down," Baker said. "I understand what you're saying because I know we can (win the tournament). So, my role was to let my teammates know every day that I got you and that we could do this. It was just giving that confidence to them, and it was so contagious. And you see the result now. We needed the challenges we had during the season to understand each other. It took the whole season, but now it's worth everything."

O'Neill steadied the Dragons even when Stony Brook held them scoreless for over four minutes in the fourth quarter and committed six turnovers. Trailing 64-60, Stony Brook missed two point-blank layups that would've cut Drexel's lead in half.

They won the title with plenty of grit and defense, and even though four Seawolves scored in double figures, led by All-Tournament selections Gigi Gonzalez and Victoria Keenan, it wasn't enough against the red-hot Dragons. Gonzalez had 18 points, and Keenan added 14 off the bench. Khari Clark (12) and Shamarla King (10) rounded out the quartet of double-figure scorers. 

Drexel's defense dominated the first quarter, limiting Stony Brook to 18.8 percent (3-16) shooting en route to a 16-9 lead after 10 minutes. The Dragons made four of their first six shots to build an early 9-4 lead, with Mullin scoring the first five points. 

Drexel held the Seawolves to 1-for-9 shooting over the final 6:46, and Baker gave the Dragons a seven-point lead on a second-chance layup with 27 seconds remaining in the opening stanza. After missing their first shot, they hit five in a row, pushing the lead to 31-18. 

"A part of being part of a team is instilling confidence in each other," Sweeney said. "You can believe in yourself but it's way better to have your teammates behind you and believing in you too. That brought us together and made us believe we could win this championship. We knew we had nothing to lose, so we played with all our hearts. This is a surreal feeling, and to be able to finish my CAA career like this is insane. I was so happy I was able to contribute."

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