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JMU too much to handle in CAA Semifinals

Sarah Curran week 10 winter

Despite a first half lead that reached as high as 12 points, the Drexel University women’s basketball team lost 76-68 to James Madison University in the March 10 semifinals of the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Precious Hall, JMU’s star and the fourth-leading scorer in all of Division I women’s basketball, had a game for the ages as she scored 37 points to lead the Dukes to their fourth straight appearance in the CAA Tournament Finals.

After a sloppy first half of play, she was unconscious in the second half, where she scored 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the floor, showcasing why she deserved to be named the 2017 CAA Player of the Year.

Prior to Hall’s second half outburst, the Dragons, who were 0-2 against JMU heading into the matchup, got off to the start they wanted. In their two regular season losses to the Dukes, the Dragons struggled offensively out of the gate and found themselves in double-digit deficits to JMU by half-time. While they were able to fight back in both those contests, the holes that the Dragons dug themselves into proved to be too large to overcome against a talented JMU roster. In order to compete with the Dukes in the semifinals, Drexel needed to take command of the game in its opening quarter.

Early on, it appeared JMU would once again dominate in the first quarter of play. Hall opened the game by making three-pointers on back-to-back JMU offensive possessions. Sparked by Hall, the Dukes took an early 10-4 lead in the game’s opening five minutes.

Regardless of all signs pointing to another first quarter catastrophe, the Dragons found their rhythm on the offensive end after senior Sarah Curran made a jumper at the 4:49 mark. Her basket ignited a 14-5 Drexel run to end the first quarter, which was capped off by freshman Bailey Greenberg’s buzzer beating jumper. Greenberg’s shot gave the Dragons an 18-15 lead heading into the second period.

The Dragons rode their momentum into the second, and opened the quarter on a 5-0 run. Greenberg connected on a rainbow three-pointer at the 9:49 mark, and then, after the Dragons forced several JMU turnovers, junior Kelsi Lidge hit a turnaround jumper at the 7:48 clip to give Drexel a 23-15 lead.

A few minutes later, freshman Aubree Brown drilled a three-point basket to give Drexel a 28-18 lead with 5:45 remaining in the first half. Overwhelmed and out of sync, JMU was forced to use a timeout to talk things over. Hall, who connected on her first two attempts from long range, had gone cold and JMU was committing far too many turnovers.

Following the timeout, Drexel and JMU traded baskets for a few possessions. The Dragons got their biggest lead of the contest when junior Sara Woods, who was coming off of a career high-scoring game (12 points) in the CAA quarterfinals, made a layup at the 2:39 mark, extending her team’s lead to 34-22.

Despite being dominated for most of the first half, the Dukes went on a 6-2 run in the second quarter’s closing minutes and cut their deficit to 36-28 going into halftime. At the half, Woods, Curran and Brown were all tied with eight individual points for the Dragons, and Greenberg wasn’t far behind with seven of her own.

Hall had 14 first half points for JMU, which was half of the team’s total, but she had also committed four costly turnovers. In total, the Dukes committed 12 turnovers in the first half, and Drexel capitalized on many of those mistakes. It also didn’t help the Dukes that Hall was the only player to make more than one basket in the game’s opening two frames, with no other JMU player scoring more than three points during that stretch.

Coming out of halftime, Hall was determined to get her team back into the game. She scored JMU’s first five points in the third quarter, with two coming off a layup in traffic and three coming off a contested jumper from long distance.

The Dragons did their best to keep some distance between themselves and the Dukes, with Curran and Lidge both making three-pointer shots to offset Hall’s five points. Drexel was more than content with allowing Hall to score, so long as no one else on JMU’s roster was able to. Unfortunately for the Dragons, JMU’s role players began to come alive.

With the Dukes trailing 42-33 at the 7:11 clip in the third, Aneah Young converted on an and-one to cut Drexel’s lead to six. On JMU’s next possession, Young swished a mid-range jumper to make the score 42-38 in favor of Drexel.

Young’s offensive productivity opened up holes for the rest of the Dukes, and JMU went on a 14-5 run in the final seven minutes of the third quarter to take a 50-47 lead into the game’s final period.

Drexel got off to a nightmarish start in the fourth. After senior Jessica Pellechio missed a three-point basket on the offensive end for Drexel, the Dragons left Hall wide open for a three-point basket on the defensive end that gave JMU a 53-47 lead. Pellechio missed an open three-pointer on the subsequent Drexel possession, and it was clear that Drexel’s sharpshooting guard did not have her normal touch from behind the arc.

Greenberg kept Drexel in the game with a trip to the foul line at the 7:35 clip. After Greenberg made both of her free throws, the Dragons trailed 53-49. JMU and Drexel traded buckets for the next minute until Sarah Curran hit a three-pointer to make the score 57-54 in favor of JMU with 6:09 left to play.

However, after Curran’s basket, the Dragons went cold and were unable to make a field goal until the 2:55 mark in the fourth quarter. By then, JMU had extended its lead to 63-56, and Precious Hall had found her shot. Hall made a jumper in the paint with 2:36 left to play, which put JMU up 65-56.

Trailing by three possessions, Drexel was forced to play the foul game throughout the contest’s final two minutes. Hall converted on four consecutive free throws, but Pellechio and Curran both made three-pointers to cut JMU’s lead to 69-64 with just 1:06 remaining.

With just 58 seconds to go, Hall was fouled by Greenberg, and went to the charity stripe with a chance to ice it. To the surprise of everyone, Hall was off target on both of her attempts, but the Dragons were unable to come away with the rebound after her second miss.

If the Dragons had snagged the rebound, they would have had an opportunity to cut JMU’s lead to one possession. However, the rebounding lapse proved be Drexel’s fatal wound, as Kamiah Smalls stepped to the line, after being fouled, and cashed in two free throws to give JMU a 71-64 advantage. Smalls’ free throws put the game out of reach for the Dragons, who ultimately fell by a score of 76-68.

Curran finished the game with a Drexel high 22 points. Her final basket of the night, a three-pointer in garbage time, moved her into a tie with Drexel great Hollie Mershon for fifth place in program history on the career points scored list (1601).

Woods finished with 11 points, one shy of her career high, and seven rebounds, six of which came on the offensive end. Greenberg ended up scoring 12 points, one shy of her career high.

Pellechio and senior guard Meghan Creighton struggled from the three-point line. The normally dominant long distance duo shot a combined 2-for-13 from beyond the arc, which had a significant impact on the game’s final outcome.

Credit to the Dukes’ perimeter defense, however, as they clamped down on the senior guards all season long. In their three games against JMU this year, Pellechio and Creighton, who shot a combined 41.6 percent from three against all other opponents this season, made just six triples on 30 attempts, which translates to roughly 20 percent shooting. The Dukes were consistently able to make Drexel’s second and third leading scorers non-factors, and that is likely the biggest reason for their 3-0 record against the Dragons.

Despite the loss, the Dragons’ season is not yet over. Drexel qualified for the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, and is set to play a home game against Duquesne University Friday, March 17 at the Daskalakis Athletic Center.