Over the next three weeks, the Dragons went 5-1, the only loss being a 40-39 defeat at the hands of the 10th-ranked University of Delaware, and clinched the No. 3 seed in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament in Upper Marlboro, Md.
The first-round matchup was March 9 against Virginia Commonwealth University, a team the Dragons had defeated twice in the regular season. That includes a 47-41 win in Richmond, Va. Jan. 26 and a 73-63 victory on senior night at the DAC Feb. 29, just 10 days earlier.
“We all know it is never easy to beat a good team three times in a season,” head coach Denise Dillon said. “We were definitely expecting the VCU game to be a close one.”
Drexel jumped out to a huge lead against the Rams, taking a 30-12 lead into halftime. At one point in the first half, the Dragons held VCU scoreless for eight minutes in the process of building their lead.
In the second half, the Rams mounted a huge comeback and got within two points before senior guard Kamile Nacickaite hit a pair of foul shots with 1.1 seconds left to secure a 65-61 victory. Drexel went 24-for-31 from the foul line in the game, including 22-for-28 in the second half.
“I was pleased with our team’s focus and aggressive play in the first half, which resulted in a significant lead,” Dillon said. “We were able to hold off VCU by getting the stops when necessary and knocking down key foul shots in the end.”
Next up for the Dragons was second-seeded James Madison. The Dukes defeated George Mason University to advance to the semifinals. After the game was tied 14-14 midway through the first half, Drexel took the lead for good.
“We realized early in the season our offense is going to have its good days and bad, but our defense cannot,” Dillon said. “The team certainly brought that philosophy into the JMU game.”
After being outrebounded 50-33 in their overtime loss Feb. 9, the Dragons focused on keeping the Dukes off the boards. This time, Drexel won the rebounding battle 35-28, including a career-high 15 from Nacickaite to go along with 16 points for her second double-double of the season.
Junior forward Taylor Wootton scored nine points, and senior guard Marisa Crane put up eight points while shooting 3-for-3 from the field. Senior forward Tyler Hale scored 12 points, including a perfect 8 of 8 from the foul line. Drexel was perfect on foul shots, going 18-for-18 from the stripe.
“Our main focus was to keep them off the offensive boards,” Dillon said. “By focusing on defense and rebounding, we were able to execute our offense without much thought.”
After what Dillon called “the best game the team played on both ends of the floor all season,” the Dragons seemed to gain momentum as they moved on to the championship game against top-seeded Delaware.
Drexel’s stellar defense held junior forward Elena Delle Donne, the CAA Player of the Year, and the Blue Hens to a very inefficient first half. The Dragons went to the locker room down 20-16 to the seventh-ranked team in the nation.
However, Drexel could never get into a rhythm on offense, finishing the game shooting 30 percent from the field, and Delaware pulled away in the second half. Delle Donne finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds, and the Blue Hens defeated the Dragons 59-43 to win the CAA Tournament.
“Our poor shooting was a combination of Delaware’s defense and our fatigue,” Dillon said. “We spent so much time and energy focusing on the defensive plan that our offense suffered.”
Despite the team’s overall struggles, junior guard Hollie Mershon scored 16 points, including four three-pointers, while adding four rebounds and two assists. Nacickaite notched 11 points and was named to the CAA All-Tournament Team.
With their great run in the tournament, Drexel earned a bid in the 64-team WNIT. This made the senior class, which consists of Nacickaite, Hale, Crane and guard Ayana Lee, the first in team history to play in four postseason tournaments.
In their first game, the Dragons matched up against Fairfield University, which boasted a 24-8 overall record. The Stags lost in the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament finals against Marist College, which is in the Women’s NCAA Tournament as a No. 13 seed.
Being the lower-seeded team, Drexel traveled to Fairfield, Conn. and defeated the Stags 57-41 March 15. The win was the Dragons’ first-ever in the postseason. Hale scored a career-high-tying 18 points and was perfect from the foul line. scored 12 points, but more importantly, played in her 126th game as a Dragon, breaking a tie with former Dragons forward Gabriela Marginean.
Nacickaite The key for the Dragons was a 22-2 scoring run that stretched from the first to the second half, giving them a lead that they would never relinquish.
The Dragons will move on in the WNIT and play the winner of the University of Hartford and Syracuse University, who will play at Hartford, Conn. March 16.