After their win over Rutgers last week, the Drexel Dragons (4-2) earned the right to the pre-season NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden in New York City, which included top-10 ranked teams Arizona and Duke and Southeastern Conference member, Alabama. On Wednesday night, the Dragons drew the number-four ranked Arizona Wildcats and after leading the Pac-12 member by 19 points in the first half, Drexel couldn’t hold on and lost by a final score of 66-62. But Drexel followed that gutsy performance with another and pulled out a heart-pounding 85-83 triple-overtime win over Alabama.
On Wednesday, Drexel got off to a great shooting start led by Chris Fouch, who ended up with 29 points in the game. After an NBA-range three-pointer from Fouch just past the midway point of the first half, Drexel led Arizona, 27-8, sending shockwaves through the basketball and social media world. Arizona went on a run at the end of the first half while Drexel went cold from the floor, thus cutting the deficit to nine points, 29-20, heading into the locker room.
The beginning of the second half was all Arizona and the momentum had swung the Wildcats way especially after star guard Damion Lee left with a knee injury midway through the second half. Junior forward Kazembe Abif was also not playing due to a concussion he sustained against Rutgers.
Despite a late surge from the Dragons, Arizona held on for the 66-62 victory. In the other semi-final, Duke beat Alabama, 74-64, setting up a contest on Friday between the Dragons and the Crimson Tide for the first time in the program’s history.
The first half was a solid one for Drexel, playing typical Bruiser Flint defense coupled with timely scoring from a few different players. The Dragons took a 32-21 lead into the break even without Lee. But the second half seemed eerily similar to Wednesday and the Tide stormed back and eventually took the lead, 52-50, with under five minutes to play.
With less than 30 seconds remaining, Alabama had the ball and was up by two points, 61-59. Drexel set up a trap and Alabama guard Trevor Relaford threw the ball right into the hands of Fouch, who sprinted down the other end of the floor to lay it in and tie the game at 61 apiece, ultimately sending the game into overtime.
The three overtimes were thrilling yet exasperating. Both Drexel and Alabama made big plays but also missed out on opportunities to finish the game off. Finally in the third overtime, the Dragons had created a big enough cushion to withstand the Alabama come back and after the Tide missed their final shot with under five seconds to play, the celebration for the Dragons commenced on the Madison Square Garden floor.
Even though Bruiser Flint and the Dragons would have loved to pull off the upset over Arizona, Drexel gained a lot of respect this week for taking the Wildcats to the limit then pulling out their first win over a SEC team with the Alabama victory. This experience in the NIT should give Drexel the confidence going forward that they can compete with anyone they play, especially their CAA foes.
Now the big question is about Damion Lee. He missed the game against Alabama and Drexel fans are holding their breath this weekend waiting to hear how long he will be out. The Dragons are deep at the guard position this year with Fouch, Frantz Massenat, Tavon Allen and freshman Major Canady. But obviously Drexel would love to keep Lee in that mix for what could potentially be a very successful season.
The Dragons will finally play their first home game on December 4th against Cleveland State after playing their first six games of the year on the road.