On Feb. 16, it certainly felt as though spring had sprung on Drexel University’s campus. Midterms had come and gone, the sun was shining, and the bleak winter months were already beginning to fade into the background. While these spring feelings tend to be associated with new beginnings and hope for the future, this day for Drexel basketball was more about looking back and reflecting on the careers and contributions of their senior team members, who were playing their last game in front of their home fans at the Daskalakis Athletic Center.
Prior to tipoff, the five senior players, Major Canady, Rodney Williams, John Moran, Mohamed Bah and Elgin Ford Jr., as well as two managers, Talia Epstein and Hayley McKnight, were honored with introductions over the PA system and presented with framed photographs commemorating the contributions that they have made to the Drexel basketball program. In a classy move, head coach Zach Spiker capped off the night’s festivities by starting all five of these seniors to the delight of all in attendance.
And while all the seniors received a raucous reception from an above-average crowd gathered in the student section, one name above all others received extra buzz from the stands. Big man Rodney Williams has quietly put together a career worthy of all-time acclaim, capped off by a truly stellar senior campaign. This 2016-2017 season has resulted in a stat line that ranks in the top 10 in the league in scoring (sixth), rebounding (seventh), field goal percentage (second) and blocks (ninth).
So, it seemed only fitting that the opening possession for the Dragons on the offensive end was focused on getting Williams the ball, a gesture that he reciprocated by taking the pass on the left wing, driving middle, and sinking a right-handed layup with relative ease.
Their guests James Madison University, however, were not afraid to spoil any sort of party for Williams and Drexel, using their big men Tom Vodanovich and Ivan Lucic to pound the ball inside and relying on steady free throw shooting for much of their offense. On the other end, Joey McLean did his best Patrick Beverley impression, dogging freshman Kurk Lee the entire length of the court and clearly frustrating the point guard with his constant activity.
As has often been the case this season, Drexel’s offensive story very closely mirrored the activity of its best player and ball handler, Lee. As the first half waned, he was able to wriggle free to knock down a trio of three pointers, sparking momentum that he and his teammates carried into the second. A stellar series of a runner, three from the top of the key, and deflection on the defensive end in successive possessions early on in that frame seemingly ignited him to do what he does best: create for his teammates.
At the 12:15 mark, Lee sparked a break leading to an and-1 for senior Mohamed Bah. Then, after Rodney Williams whipped across-court pass for one of junior Sammy Mojica’s four three-pointers, Lee continued the assist party with a feed to a wide open freshman Sam Green in the corner for yet another triple.
In the coaching chess match that is ever-present behind the scenes of a Division I contest, JMU head coach Louis Rowe appeared to make the decisive move with 6 minutes remaining. Seeing a surging Dragons attack, Rowe responded by putting back on his full court press that had so thoroughly discouraged Kurk Lee in the first. The impact was immediate: a quick turnover and score, a jump ball, and another near turnover tangibly altered the momentum of the game.
With the Dragons left struggling to get the ball into their playmaker’s hands and get across half court, they would see their offense slump for a stretch in the final 5 minutes of the game that resulted in no field goals over the final 6:40 of the contest.
With offensive inefficiency at this alarmingly high of a rate, unfortunately no amount of good karma from Senior Day could save them. When sent to the line, the Dukes closed out the contest unfazed and saw three-point attempt after three-point attempt for the home team catch iron. The final: an emotional 70-64 loss for the Dragons.
After dropping their season finale in an ugly game with the College of Charleston 80-67, the Dragons now find themselves looking their basketball mortality square in the eyes. No. 10-seeded Drexel had a few days to gather their thoughts and energy before having a chance at redemption against none other than the seventh-seeded James Madison Dukes on Friday, March 3. If Zach Spiker and the Dragons hope to salvage their season with a tournament run, the time for action is now.