Final Score: Drexel 70, James Madison 62
Key to the Game: Fighting
Player of the Game: Austin Williams
Next Game: Sunday March 4th, high noon vs College of Charleston (CAA Tournament)
When the key to the game is listed as “Fighting” and there were 51 personal fouls called, its easy to envision actual fist fights breaking out. There were none of those is this game. Nor was Drexel particularly tougher or grittier than their worthy opponents, an up and coming JMU team that Head Coach Louis Rowe described as “exciting.” It’s a culture of fighting that Zach Spiker – who may not describe it quite that way – is building at Drexel University.
That culture, which was embodied in the most important game that his Dragons have played this year, may have been why his team started so slowly. Tramaine Isabell was late for the bus, and Coach Spiker held him out as a starter. It’s a small thing, being late for a bus, and when your star player does it maybe some would let him slide. But when building a culture of fighting for one another is the long term goal – the most important thing – then no one is above reproach. So Tramaine sat. And when he did enter the game, he was off his game. And it was ugly basketball for the Dragons early in the North Charleston Coliseum.
The Dragons had scored just twenty points in the first 14 minutes and 22 seconds of the game but fight on the defensive end left them hanging around with a JMU team that couldn’t gain separation. Then seemingly out of nowhere a cross court pass from Troy Harper beat the defense and Sammy Mojica snapped off a shot that didn’t just go in for three, but also drew a foul shot that tied the game. On the next possession down, it was Isabell who fed Mojica. Postgame, Isabell said “When I looked at [Sammy] I told him be ready to shoot…we’ve got snipers who can hurt other teams.” And just like that, bang, bang, a game that seemed slipping away was a ballgame again, with Drexel even leading at times.
Tramaine Isabell wasn’t shooting the ball well. So he made that look to Sammy. He didn’t just do that either. Of the nine total first half field goals by the Dragons, he assisted on four of them. Instead of getting his head down, he made the extra pass. That’s the fight. That’s the team first culture that Zach Spiker thinks is worth teaching, even if it causes a disadvantage in the most important game of the year. And it served his team well today.
While Tramaine was finding his shot (and he did, to the tune of 20 second half points, half of the total Drexel output) his teammates were fighting too. Tyshawn Myles and Tadas Kararinas came in with Austin Williams in foul trouble and Tyshawn got on the floor to win a loose ball. Tadas got in the mix under the basket. And the two combined to go a perfect six for six from the foul line to help the triage effort without Austin. That allowed Williams to stay on the bench with his two fouls rather than get forced back in. And that allowed one of Austin to get out in the second half and finish one of the best games of his career. Williams finished with a double-double, 10 points and 15 rebounds along with a career high 7 blocked shots. He played the entire second half and it was a big part of the JMU second half struggles. JMU shot a mere 23% from inside the arc in the second half. Another 20% of those shots were blocked by Austin Williams.
Sometimes it won’t be your day. Happens to us all. And when the top five scorers on the team combine for just 18 points in the first half and foul trouble is rampant its easy to say it’s not anyone’s day. But whether it was Miles Overton stepping up off the bench to guard Dragon killer Matt Lewis, or Troy Harper picking a pocket at midcourt, or just crazy over-officiating, the Dragons didn’t lose their cool. There were no technical fouls. There were no meltdowns. There wasn’t screaming at one another. The next man jumped up. They stuck to the mission. There was constant fight, on both ends of the floor, until they found a groove and shots began to fall. That is the culture that Zach Spiker is looking to build at Drexel University. It was on full display for the teams first postseason victory with him at the helm.