When Drexel defeated Northern Iowa on Sunday in the second round of the NIT, it gave the Dragons another home game. This was assured when UMass upset Seton Hall on their home court on Saturday. It also gave me the opportunity to purchase three tickets for the Tuesday night game at the DAC.
It also meant that Dragons' Head Coach Bruiser Flint was going to face for the first time his former pupil, Derek Kellogg, head coach of the Minutemen. Flint was an assistant coach at UMass when Kellogg was the point guard under John Calipari. It's a fascinating story that was described here on CSNPhillyTalk.com
I left work early on Tuesday Afternoon (cue the Moody Blues song
) and picked up my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew from school. Then my friend Tieff met up at our house and we went on our way to Philadelphia. The trip lasted about two and half hours due to traffic on the Staten Island Expressway and the New Jersey Turnpike (a New Jersey State Trooper had to clear downed road signs from the left lane due to an accident).
When we drove down Market Street, a spot opened up literally in front of the DAC. I parallel parked the car into the spot, then paid six bucks for three hours at the kiosk. Needless to say, we were quite happy with our good fortune.
For Tieff and I, this was the fourth game we had seen at the DAC. As were about to walk into the entrance, Tieff commented that the gym might be very warm tonight. In our previous trips, the gym had been pretty warm.
But Tieff had been the harbinger of doom on Tuesday night. When we entered the gym, it was the warmest it had ever been. It turns out that the oppressive heat at the DAC would play an integral part of the second half. All that was missing was Matthew Broderick commenting that the gym was "Africa hot".
Matthew was dressed for the "Africa hot" gym wearing a Drexel Dragons T-shirt. When I was in Philly last year for the Hofstra-Drexel game, I signed him up for the Drexel Dragons Youth Club and I got him the t-shirt for free. Matthew was excited to see his new favorite player, Samme Givens, who he watched have a terrific game vs. Northern Iowa on Sunday morning.
This was my second NIT quarterfinal that I have witnessed in person. Back in 2006, when Hofstra "made the NIT", thanks to another NCAA Selection Committee snub, the Pride hosted a quarterfinal against Old Dominion
. Due to that NIT Quarterfinal in 2006, I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach about this. But I did my best not to show it and hoped that Drexel would continue their run with another win on Tuesday night.
We got our tickets from Will Call and sat in one of the upper rows behind the Drexel bench. The DACPack, the great Drexel student section, was already in their seats raring to go, chanting loudly before the tipoff. One of those students sitting behind the UMass basket held a sign that said "Kellogg's Frosted Minutemen". Give the kid an A for humorous originality.
Drexel did not seem fazed by the oppressive heat and stormed out to a 9-0 lead. Samme Givens scored five of the first nine points with his usual display of post moves. What had already been a loud gym was now way above raucous.
The Minutemen would finally score behind a very familiar face to Tieff and me. Chaz Williams, who played his freshman year at Hofstra, would score the first five points for UMass on a layup, then a three point play to cut the lead to 11-5. Williams, who is definitely not the five foot nine he is listed at, was a member of the CAA All Rookie Team for the Pride two years ago before he transferred to the Minutemen. When he saw Williams for the first time, my color analyst commented to me "Number three is so small".
But Drexel continued to score at will in the paint and they jumped out to a 17-5 lead. UMass would come back and cut the lead to 23-17. But the Dragons responded and stretched the lead back to ten, where it would stay for the rest of the first half.
As I had previously noted, the Dragons kept doing most of their damage in the paint, where they scored thirty four of their forty one first half points. Most of the damage was being done by Givens and Dartaye Ruffin, who was a member of the CAA All Rookie Team last season. Givens had ten points, but it was Ruffin that was the most impressive. He hit eight of his nine field goal attempts and had seventeen first half points.
Drexel was up 41-31 at the half. Despite shooting forty seven percent, UMass was down ten points because the Dragons shot fifty one percent from the field. It was an impressive feat by both teams considering neither team had a three pointer in the first half. The Minutemen missed both of their three point attempts while the Dragons missed all seven of their shots from beyond the arc.
Thanks to the oppressive heat, it seemed like the entire crowd was waiting on the concession line during the halftime intermission. The concessions stand ran out of water. Thus Matthew and I had to purchase lemonade instead. Now this wasn't an issue for me, but for my six year old son who only drinks water, it was a big problem. He begrudgingly and slowly drank some of his lemonade, just enough to keep him hydrated.
There was no halftime show at the DAC. I guess the wonderful folks at ESPN, who were televising the NIT, didn't want to have any terrific performers like the Bucks County Bungee Jumpers
, who we saw at the halftime of this year's Hofstra vs. Drexel game. Considering the great atmosphere of a sold out gym and a more than lively student section, the Bungee Jumpers this time might have brought the place down.
The Dragons picked up right where they left off in the first half. Derrick Thomas scored the first four points on layups and Drexel now had a 45-31 lead. Kellogg immediately called timeout to wisely slow down the Dragons' momentum. But Drexel continued to score in the paint and a Frantz Massenat three point play put the Dragons up by their biggest margin, seventeen, 53-36 with not even four minutes gone by in the second half.
It looked like the Dragons were about to punch their ticket to the World's Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden. It seemed that Drexel was about to have the chance to show on a national stage how the Selection Committee had wrongly left them out of the NCAA Tournament. All that stood between them and a bus trip to New York City was sixteen minutes.
That and the Massachusetts Minutemen.
UMass switched to a half court trap and that started to bother Drexel. The Minutemen would score nine straight points and cut the lead to eight, 53-45. Another Thomas layup briefly stemmed the tide and put the Dragons back up by ten, 55-45. But UMass' Jesse Morgan then scored the next five points and the lead was down to five, 55-50 with eleven and a half minutes left.
In the span of four and a half minutes, the Minutemen had outscored the Dragons 14-2. During this period of time, the Dragons were one of ten from the field and turned the ball over four times. When they weren't turning the ball over and broke the UMass press, instead of being aggressive and trying to score, Drexel just settled into their half court offense. Perhaps it was the heat that made them tired, but the Dragons didn't seem to have their legs.
As a result, the Minutemen continued their rally. Terrell Vinson was doing most of the damage, along with Williams and Morgan. Vinson scored seven of UMass' next twelve points, but it was Morgan's three that gave the Minutemen their first lead of the game, 62-60 with a little over seven minutes left.
Bruiser called timeout, perhaps a little too late. But the damage was done. UMass had completed a 26-7 run and left the DAC crowd stunned in silence. The points that Drexel had scored at will in the paint in the first half had dried up due to the Minutemen converging on any Dragon in the lane. Meanwhile, Chris Fouch had been rendered useless by the UMass' defense, as he hit on only one shot for the entire game, a three pointer early in the second half.
Out of the timeout, Givens scored to tie the game at sixty two. But Vinson had the hot hand and scored the next six points to put the Minutemen up by six, 68-62. The Drexel fans by me now were very anxious as they saw their season start to slip away.
But the Dragons rallied. After Massenat hit two free throws with 1:23 left, Drexel was only down two, 72-70. The crowd, especially the DACPack was now incredibly loud. Vinson missed his next shot and Drexel had a chance to tie. But McCoy missed a short open jumper and Givens just missed on a tip shot. The Dragons were forced to foul Williams, one of UMass' best free throw shooters.
Willams though missed the front end of the one and one attempt and Drexel had a chance to tie. Flint called timeout to setup a play. As Drexel came out on to the court, Kellogg looked over the Dragons' offensive formation and immediately called timeout. The chess match was on for the last sixteen seconds of the game.
As I recorded the last fifteen seconds of the game, Drexel inbounded the ball to Givens, who handed the ball to Massenat, with Williams guarding him. Massenat dribbled back and forth at the top of the key, then got a pick from Givens. Vinson, who had been guarding Givens, switched off and guarded Massenat, who then drove the lane. The taller Vinson forced Massenat's shot attempt to fall short and hit off the front rim. The ball was tapped out to center court and Fouch's desperation heave was off as the buzzer sounded.
UMass had held onto the 72-70 win. The Drexel fans were numb, stunned by what had happened. It was the Dragons' first home loss of the season. In the second half, the Minutemen torched one of the best defensive teams in the CAA, shooting seventy percent (17 of 24) from the field.
Vinson scored fourteen of his eighteen points in the second half. Williams led all scorers with twenty points, as he shot eight of thirteen from the field. The Minutemen as a whole shot a blistering fifty nine percent for the game.
Massenat scored ten of his sixteen points in the second half, but was only six of twelve from the free throw line. The team that had led the CAA in free throw shooting during the season at over seventy four percent only shot sixty five percent on the night, sixty percent in the second half. Ruffin led all Dragons with eighteen, but none of those points came in the second half. In his last game in a Drexel uniform, Givens scored twelve points, but only two in the second half.
What had I thought had been a little familiar about this game, compared to what happened to Hofstra six years ago, really now had become very similar in its outcome. Six years ago, Hofstra, the third seed in their bracket, had won their first two games in the NIT before hosting Old Dominion in the Quarterfinals. This included a win over second seeded St Joseph's, who just happened to be the two seed in the three seed Drexel's bracket as well this season (St Joe's lost to UNI in the first round).
The Pride would end up losing to the Monarchs after having an early second half lead, just like the Dragons (Hofstra was up by eight compared to Drexel's seventeen point lead). Both Hofstra against ODU and Drexel against UMass on Tuesday night seemed very tired in the second half. In Hofstra's case, the Monarchs' physical play and deep bench wore the Pride's seven man rotation down. On Tuesday night, the Minutemen's trap and the heat of the gym wore the Dragons' seven man rotation down. In Josh Verlin's terrific recap of the game
, Bruiser noted that they "ran out of gas at the end".
Still, even with the loss, Drexel, like Hofstra, deserved to have made the NCAA Tournament. The Dragons had won nineteen games in a row before losing to VCU in the CAA Championship Game, then won another two games in the NIT. Drexel won twenty nine games this season, a team record. Unlike two of the other NCAA bubble teams; Seton Hall and Mississippi State, Drexel made it to the NIT Quarterfinals.
With the win, UMass had its third NIT road win in a row. They had previously knocked off Mississippi State and Seton Hall. Now they added Drexel to their impressive resume of wins. The Minutemen head to MSG for a date with Stanford. I get to see them one more time next week.
As for Drexel, outside of Givens, their entire team returns next season. However, Givens will be a huge loss. After the game was over, many people in the stands called out Samme, thanking him for his contributions over the four years. He consoled Massenat, who was distraught from missing the potential game tying shot.
For one last time, Givens was again the consummate teammate.