Final score: Hofstra 88, Drexel 76
Key to the game: No excuses
Drexel player of the game: Tramaine Isabell
Next game: Thursday February 22nd, 7 pm vs. Delaware
The recap from Saturday’s loss to Hofstra comes to us from Jerry Beach of Defiantly Dutch. Thanks, again, to Jerry for lending his time to Always a Dragon!
For almost two hours late Saturday afternoon, Drexel’s 88-76 loss to host Hofstra played out according to the narrative a Lawnguyislander might have expected in his first in-person exposure to the Dragons this season.
Drexel, the worst defensive team the CAA’s ever seen in the KenPom era, at least according to KenPom, limited the potent Flying Dutchmen to 36 first-half possessions and carried a 32-30 lead into the locker room. But the Dutchmen showed off their prowess and their depth against the undermanned Dragons by opening the second on a 22-5 run on their way to a 56-point half, the second-most productive half by Hofstra against a Division I foe since Joe Mihalich took over as head coach in 2013.
Despite rolling out a seven-man rotation with Austin Williams sidelined, Drexel climbed back and pulled within three points twice late in the second half before the Dutchmen iced the game by scoring on 10 straight possessions in the final five minutes.
The double-digit deficit didn’t dissuade the Dragons, who forced a turnover on the Dutchmen’s penultimate trip up the floor before Tramaine Isabell, who scored a team-high 29 points, slapped the ball away from Hofstra forward Stafford Trueheart as the buzzer sounded.
The waning seconds seemed to be symbolize a season filled with effort and frustration for Drexel, which has lost four straight following a four-game winning streak in which it knocked off CAA contenders Northeastern and William & Mary. Such roller coaster campaigns are routine for a program in the midst of its second season under a new head coach, when the buzz of year one has worn off, the implementation of the program is still taking place and the difference-making talent is often still in high school somewhere.
But then Dragons head coach Zach Spiker made it clear he has no interest in narratives, even ones that paint his rebuilding team in a positive light and hint at a happy ending.
“I don’t think we were out of gas,” Spiker said as he gazed at the notebook perched atop press row. “I see your notes here.”
“You can read that scribble?”
“It is scribble.”
It took Spiker just another two minutes to explain why.
“I would say I thought our start to the second half didn’t help us capitalize on an otherwise positive first 20 minutes,” Spiker said. “At halftime, I thought they did a better job on the glass. They did a better job getting (Justin) Wright-Foreman going.”
Wright-Foreman, the potential CAA player of the year, scored 22 of his game-high 32 points in the second half, including 12 in the final six minutes after an unusually poor spate of free throw shooting by Hofstra allowed Drexel to remain within striking distance.
His jumper with 5:16 left extended the lead to 69-64 and capped a possession in which Hofstra pulled down two offensive rebounds. Drexel pulled within five points for the last time on a Kurk Lee basket with 3:36 left, after which Wright-Foreman scored six unanswered points, including four from the free throw line. The Dutchmen hit nine of their final 10 free throws after hitting just eight of their first 25.
“We had some guys who did some good things,” Spiker said of the Dragons, who had three more players in double digits in Lee (11 points), Troy Harper (11 points) and Sammy Mojica (10 points). “I do think there were some areas of progress. But at the end of the day, we fouled too much. We turned it over a few too many (times).”
Drexel committed just 10 turnovers and actually outscored Hofstra 13-10 off turnovers. But the Dutchmen scored all 10 of those points off the Dragons’ six second half turnovers.
“I thought they had more than that,” Spiker said. “Felt like our turnovers were big.”
As for sticking with the Dutchmen, who had four players score in double figures and two (Rokas Gustys and Eli Pemberton) produce double-doubles, and remaining pesky for all 2,400 seconds? Spiker wasn’t ready to declare a sturdy effort as an area of progress.
“I don’t know that we played our best 40 minutes,” Spiker said. “I think we were just a little lackadaisical. I think we’re competing. But I don’t know that we’re…”
As Spiker trailed off, he was asked how he balances praising the competitive nature of the Dragons with the reality that, at the moment, their effort is not good enough to win.
“We talk about it,” he said.
The Dragons’ second season under Spiker is similar to Hofstra’s second season under Jay Wright back in 1995-96. The Dutchmen, with eight Wright recruits, twice got to .500 in the NAC to engender hopes of a Cinderella run in the league tournament before a buzzer-beating loss to Northeastern started a nine-game losing streak. Hofstra finished the season with nine wins, one fewer than the year before.
The Dragons, who have nine players recruited by Spiker, already have 11 wins, two more than last year, but the recent losing streak has dampened the daydreams of those who hoped Drexel might arrive a year or two ahead of schedule next month in Charleston.
On Saturday, evidence that the transformative season may not be far away sat a couple hundred feet down the sideline from Spiker. Craig “Speedy” Claxton, now a Hofstra assistant, arrived as Wright’s first elite recruit in the fall of 1996 and revived the program. Led by Claxton, the Dutchmen went 77-44 over the next four seasons and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in more than two decades in 2000.
Told of the similarities to Wright’s second Hofstra squad, Spiker offered a small grin.
“I like the way you’re thinking,” he said.
But there’d be no further deep diving about the challenges of a second season in the grand scheme of rebuilding a program, not when there’s a far larger task in front of Spiker and the Dragons.
“Trying to win the next game,” Spiker said. “Trying to win the next game. Certainly, we’re building, and we understand that. But inside of that there’s a subset of we’re trying to win every single basketball game.”
On Saturday, that was the only narrative that mattered.