Final Score: UNCW 83, Drexel 82
Key to the Game: Avoid a track meet
Drexel Player of the Game: Tramaine Isabell
Next Game: Saturday March 3rd, time and opponent TBD
Coming into Saturday’s game, the Drexel Dragons had a lot to prove. There would be the inevitable hangover from the attention that this team had garnered over the last 48 hours following their 34-point comeback against Delaware. A win would also move them one step closer to potentially getting out of the first-round play-in games of the CAA tournament, a feat that would undoubtedly be a huge accomplishment for Zach Spiker’s program now in its second year. And then there was the added pressure of Senior Day.
Tradition dictates that typically your seniors are the ones to fill the starting spots on Senior Day and Drexel stuck with that tradition on Saturday. Tyshawn Myles, Sammy Mojica, Austin Williams and Miles Overton were on the court at the tip with Tramaine Isabell rounding out the starting five. It was one of the physically largest lineups Drexel has put on the floor this season, and one that did not seem to match up all that well with a speedy, up-tempo UNCW team.
Drexel’s start was strangely reminiscent of Thursday’s game. Coach Spiker stuck with his seniors for just over three minutes, moving Alihan Demir and Kurk Lee onto the floor with the team trailing 7-3. It took the Dragons a little while longer to warm up as the Dragons found themselves trailing 14-3 early in the contest, only sinking one of their first 12 shots, which also featured a four-minute scoring drought that was brought to an end by Demir.
UNCW’s lead ballooned to 13 halfway through the first half with UNCW holding a 20-7 lead. With the first ten minutes out of the way, and their rotation back closer to what one would usually see from the Dragons, they performed well the rest of the half, outscoring UNCW 27-18 the rest of the way to close the half trailing the Seahawks 38-34.
In games where Drexel has been successful their formula has been pretty similar. Think of the strategy employed by a boxer who likes to take a bout into the late rounds. They keep things close. The scoring is in reach, and while they might be trailing at times the possibility to turn things up a bit and put forth a flurry that puts them in front always exists. That is how Drexel plays and that is how they played once again in the second half on Saturday.
The second half featured ten lead changes. UNCW’s lead of six with just under ten minutes remaining was the largest of the half. Drexel increased their points per possession to 1.125, and after missing their first five layups, they made 16 of their remaining 24 attempts. Tramaine Isabell had yet another stellar second half, putting up 23 points and three assists while turning the ball over just once in the second twenty minutes. His total of 29 points were a game high.
Down the stretch, UNCW found themselves in some significant foul trouble. Jaylen Fornes eventually fouled out. Jordan Talley, who finished with 21 points, was able to keep himself in the game with four fouls, as did stand-out forward Devonte Cacok. Cacok finished with 16 points and an incredible 21 rebounds. He is undoubtedly a fun player to watch on the court, and for Drexel fans who did not get to see Malik Rose play, Cacok is the closest thing that has been seen to Rose in quite some time.
With just over a minute remaining, Kurk Lee made a key steal on a UNCW inbound, and followed it up with a drawn foul. He made one of two which put Drexel up by four. Ty Taylor responded with a three pointer that closed the game to 80-79. On UNCW’s next trip down the floor, Taylor found his way to the line at the expense of Sammy Mojica. He sunk both his free throws, split up by a Drexel timeout, and Drexel once again found themselves trailing. With the ball in Tramaine Isabell’s hands, he drove left drawing Jordan Talley’s 4th foul on a blocking call and once again took to the free throw lane. His two makes put the Dragons back up, but UNCW had an answer.
Jordan Talley sunk a fifteen-foot jumper to put the Seahawks up 83-82. As he has in these situations in other games, Coach Spiker kept his timeout in his pocket. Drexel nearly turned the ball over, causing a sense of urgency for the Dragons as the nine seconds remaining ticked away. Kurk Lee found himself with the ball and drove to the hoop from the left side, eventually missing a layup. Austin Williams could not tip the ball home, and Drexel found themselves on the losing end, falling 83-82 to UNCW.
Senior Day might not have ended in a victory, but it was not a complete loss on the court. The four guys who will be heading on from Drexel each contributed in their own way. Miles Overton drained another key three pointer. Tyshawn Myles had 4 points and 5 boards in just 9 minutes of play. Sammy Mojica contributed 4 assists and 7 boards despite a day where his shot was off and Austin Williams matched a career high with 14 boards on his last day at the DAC.
It should come as no surprise though that Saturday’s Player of the Game honor goes to Tramaine Isabell. Isabell finished the contest with 29 points, 8 boards, and 6 assists along with two steals. Isabell finishes his regular season with 548 points, and an average of 21.1 points per game. He amassed the 11th highest point total in Drexel history this season while missing five regular season games, and he still has the CAA tournament to add to his numbers.
Winning Saturday would have been the first step towards getting out of the play-in games held on Saturday. With a win and an Elon loss, Drexel would have found themselves at worst in a tie for 6th place with the Phoenix with the tie breaker going their way. Two other pivotal games, Hofstra vs. Towson and Charleston vs. William & Mary would also dictate who that 6th place team would play.
The first domino fell into place when William & Mary won their game in overtime. A win by Drexel and one by Towson would give the Dragons another game against The Tribe, arguably a better matchup than the red-hot Hofstra Pride.
While a play-in game against either JMU or Delaware followed by a potential second round game against Northeastern might look like a better path on paper, it would have been a great accomplishment for the program to get out of that play-in game, where they have found themselves for each of the last two years.
But enough about what could have been. It is hard to not chalk Zach Spiker’s second season up as a step in the right direction. Tramaine Isabell lived up to his preseason hype, something that Drexel transfers have failed to do in recent years. Austin Williams might not have put up the point total some were looking for, but he has made a strong case to become the CAA’s Defensive Player of the Year. The team improved their record from the 9-23 record of last season. The work, however, is not done. This team needs to improve their league worse defense considerably. They also have three open scholarships to sort out, with Coltrane Washington being their only commit, and not much else publicly reported as being on their radar.
There will undoubtedly be more coverage about what this team needs to do to move their game to the next level, but Saturday, ultimately, was about the seniors. Sammy Mojica, Austin Williams, Tyshawn Myles and Miles Overton saw everything around them change two years ago when Drexel cut ties with then head coach Bruiser Flint, and they stuck with the program. Those of us at Always a Dragon would like to thank each of them for giving it their all, and we wish them the best of luck as life after college basketball gets ready to start. As always, thanks for reading.