Kurk Lee returned to form Saturday afternoon which bodes well for Drexel as it navigates the CAA this season. What the Dragons didn’t have is an answer for UNCW’s outstanding forward Devontae Cacok, whose lane domination fueled a decisive run in the Seahawks’ 97-83 victory in Trask Coliseum.
After the Dragons created their biggest lead, 49-42 with 18:17 remaining, Cacok scored UNCW’s next eight points to ignite a 17-2 tear. Cacok, who became the school’s career rebounding leader in the first half, finished with 24 points and 12 rebounds. His presence around the basket created space for the Seahawks’ shooters and they buried 11 of 25 from beyond-the-arc.
“We all saw the same thing didn’t we,” Drexel coach Zach Spiker said. “Cacok is a great player. He played a great game. It’s such a deadly lineup C.B. has put together here. So many shooters in the lineup. Pick your poison with a good team like this. They were able to score inside in the second half to really get them going.”
Drexel, coming off a thrilling victory less than 48 hours prior, allowed UNCW to rip off 1.28 points per possession. The Seahawks also outscored the Dragons 24-9 at the free throw line.
Lee, playing just his second game since Nov. 17th due to injury, came off the bench and hit his first five shots, including a quartet of 3-pointers. He played 25 minutes and finished with 19 points, leaving the junior point guard 61 shy of the 1,000-point club.
Although both teams scored efficiently in the first half, Drexel’s zone helped manage the tempo and keep the Seahawks’ transition attack in check and a late tip-in gave Drexel a 42-40 halftime lead.
UNCW coach C.B. McGrath adjusted the way his team defended Drexel’s ball screens in the second half. The Dragons shot 40 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes, missing several open shots around the rim, and hit only 4-of-16 beyond-the-arc.
“I told our guys at halftime, give that defensive energy and effort with our adjustments and we’ll win the game,” McGrath said. “We were getting open looks and we knocked down big shots when we needed to stop their runs. We got the ball inside and put pressure on them.”
James Butler was another bright spot for Drexel. The burly post player battled Cacok inside with aplomb, matching a season high with 17 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. He hit 7 of 8 shots from inside-the-arc while providing a physical presence to complement Alihan Demir, who added 13 points and three rebounds, knocking down 3-of-6 from long range.
Both teams had five players score in double figures. Jeantal Cylla and Ty Gadsden added 20 apiece for UNCW (7-11, 3-2) while Troy Harper added 17 and Trevor John chipped in 11 points for the Dragons.
Splitting two games, defeating the defending conference champions and welcoming Lee back to the court makes the southern trip a success for Drexel, which returns home Thursday and Saturday to face Towson and James Madison. The Dragons, who fall to 8-11 overall and 2-2 in the conference, must sweep the pair if they hope to compete for the top half of the CAA and keep pace with league leader Hofstra, which tried to improve to 5-0 Saturday night at Elon.
With the return of Lee, the Dragons can score inside and outside with multiple threats. Ultimately, the amount of defensive improvement will determine what path the Dragons follow this season. That seems to be a annual theme under Spiker, whose team is now ranked 345th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (10th in the CAA) and 320th or worse in five significant defensive metrics. Just playing mediocre defense should give Drexel a chance to crack the CAA’s upper crust.
“As you look at it, they had five guys in double figures. That’s a balanced attack. One of those guys had 13 assists. I still felt we had a chance to win this game given our experiences and what we’ve been through as a program,” Spiker said. “I thought we had a good chance with 1:15 down 10 points. We had a good look to cut it to seven, it didn’t go. For the most part our shot selection was good. At the end we got a little haywire trying to make a 10-point shot and those don’t exist as you guys know.”