Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Guru's College Report: Drexel Upset Leads To CAA Title Showdown With Delaware

By Mel Greenberg

UPPER MARLBORO, Md. – Longtime friends and longtime area rivals No. 7 Delaware and Drexel, who joined the Colonial Athletic Association in 2001 as part of the defection of four teams from the America East, will battle for the conference championship at 12:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon.

The grand prize here at the Show Place Arena, known more for equestrian events, is one of the 31 automatic bids to the NCAA tournament, whose entire 64-team field and draw will be revealed Monday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN.

The remaining conference tournaments across the country will also wrap up Sunday.

If Delaware falls short to the Dragons, the Blue Hens off their historic season featuring Elena Delle Donne, the nation’s leading scorer, will make the field the other way by receiving one of 33 at-large bids.

Drexel has no choice but to win the game and return to NCAA three years after taking the Dragons’ only CAA title in 2009.

Otherwise, coach Denise Dillon’s group will spend their postseason in the WNIT, which in itself should have a competitive 64-team field.

That Delaware is in the title game is no surprise. The Blue Hens were picked to win the conference back in the fall by coach Tina Martin’s conference colleagues, who also picked Drexel fifth.

Those expectations were enhanced with the first 18-0 perfect run in the CAA in a decade since former longtime conference ruler Old Dominion made a similar jaunt.

After being Cinderella here last season as a seventh-seed pulling several upsets before falling to two-time champion James Madison in the title game, the Blue Hens have returned to the scene of their near glorious moment 12 months later better armed and extremely dangerous.

Top-seeded Delaware (29-1) made it two easy wins Saturday in the tournament with a lopsided 66-39 victory over fifth-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington, who upset fourth-seeded Hofstra in the quarterfinals.

Drexel (18-12), however, as the third seed brought down second-seeded James Madison in stunning fashion with a strong defensive effort leading to a 67-50 victory.

The loss most probably dislodged the Dukes (24-7) from any NCAA consideration and they are likely headed to the WNIT.

The Dragons are getting good at felling CAA defending champions.

In 2009 when the current members of the senior class were freshmen Drexel took down Old Dominion in the semifinals, ending the Lady Monarchs’ 17-for-17 claim to CAA titles since joining the conference in 199102.

The next day, the Dragons topped host James Madison for a first-ever win on the Dukes’ campus in Harrisonburg, Va., to claim the NCAA automatic bid.

This season Drexel caused JMU more heartache by winning in Harrisburg for the first time in non-CAA tournament matchups. The Dukes did come back and get revenge with a 56-51 triumph in overtime at the Daskalakis Athletic Center in Philadelphia.

On Saturday, Drexel’s win ended James Madison’s two-year reign.

That home defeat to JMU on Feb. 9 is one of just two tough losses for Drexel since the Dragons escaped their drift toward mediocrity with what is now an 8-2 run following a dreadful setback at home to George Mason 56-51 on Feb. 2.

The other was the near-stunner against Delaware at home on Feb. 19 before a sellout crowd when Delle Donne, on her worst performance as a collegian, scored just 12 points but her shot in the low-scoring game in the final seconds enabled the Blue Hens to escape with a 40-39 victory.

Delaware then returned to its high efficiency rolling through Saturday against the Seahawks (20-12) with such ease that Delle Donne played just 18 minutes in scoring 15 points, grabbing seven rebounds, blocking three shots, getting one steal and one assists.

Though the rest and low-points dropped Delle Donne to a 27.6 points per game average she likely has clinched claimed the NCAA scoring title over Eastern Michigan’s Tavelyn James whose team beat Central Michigan in the final seconds for the Mid-American Conference title and NCAA bid.

James, whose average was 24.2 before Saturday, scored 23 and likely has one game left since EMU is not likely to draw a good seed in the NCAA field.

Delle Donne will play Sunday and has at least one game left in the NCAA field, if not more, since the Blue Hens are likely to earn a three or four seed off their season performance and high ranking in the RPI.

Joining Delle Donne in double figures in Saturday’s win were Akeema Richards, one of two new significant additions this season, who had 13 points and Kelsey Buchanan, who had a season-high 10 points.

Richards is a transfer from West Virginia while Trumae Lucas transferred from Florida giving the Blue Hens players from experience performing in BCS conferences.

Tawanna Lee had 13 points and Alisha Andrews scored 11 for UNCW, which shot just 25 percent after scoring a more-than-a-decade high 94 points in the quarterfinal win over Hofstra, whose late-season fade enabled Drexel to grab a three-seed on the final night of the regular season and stay out of Delaware’s path until Sunday’s title game.

“Obviously we came out very strong,” Martin said of Saturday’s win. “We’re on a mission. We really want to get this. This has been one of our goals and the team is focused and we got one more game.

“These young ladies are amazing, they play hard and if things go ok, we’re going to able to get a championship and that’s what we came here for. We’re excited, we’re anxious and we got one more game left.”

Martin was worried before the game about the team’s state of mind because the locker room was extremely quiet. She even admitted to telling a joke that failed to draw any amusement, though in the end it was the team’s focus that contributed to the silence.

Seawhawks coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, the former WNBA star of four-time league champion Houston Comets, paid tribute to Delaware’s resolve.

“You’ve got to give it to Delaware,” she said. “They come out, they execute their game plan, they play hard for 40 minutes. Coach Tina Martin has done a tremendous job all year long getting her team ready to play.

“Delaware has gotten everyone’s `A’ game this year and they’ve been up for the challenge.”

Cooper-Dyke was asked to expound on her impressions of Delaware given her long distinguished playing career as a star at Southern Cal, the WNBA and in the Olympics.

“The talented teams that are the ones that win have a coach like coach Martin who puts pieces of the puzzle together, keep them together, and keep them motivated year long.”

She referenced her WNBA coach Van Chancellor, Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma and Tennessee’s Pat Summitt as examples of blending superstars with the rest of the roster leading to her praise of Delaware.

Drexel, meanwhile, which nearly squandered all of a 22-point lead over Virginia Commonwealth in the quarterfinals, just kept getting tougher against JMU, depriving the Dukes of any rally after building on a 30-22 lead that had expanded before the end of the half.

Dillon in her postgame comments first spoke of Drexel’s perfect 18-for-18 performance at the foul line, which tied a CAA tournament record.

“We understand the importance of capitalizing when we get to the free throw line and the girls certainly did that today,” Dillon said. “The biggest statistic was rebounding and that was our No. 1 focus - keeping them off the glass.”

Drexel had a 39-31 advantage.

Senior Kamile Nacickaite had 16 points and a career-high 15 rebounds, while Hollie Mershon had 15 points, Tyler Hale scored 12 points, and Marisa Crane scored eight off 3-for-3 shooting from the field, including 2-for-2 on three-point attempts.

As for playing Delaware again following the near-upset last month, Crane said, “I don’t think we would want it any other way.

“The team we would like to see in the championship is Delaware. It’s hard to beat a team three times, so hopefully the third time is the charm for us in the most important game.”

When Drexel was struggling, Dillon related she had told her players they need to step up when they have the opportunity as Delaware has done and now the Dragons have finally listened to her.

The Drexel women are stealing a little thunder at the moment from the Dragons’ men’s team, who fell to VCU Monday night in the CAA title game, relegating Bruiser Flint’s squad to the bubble where they have been projected in and out of the field by various observers.

The Drexel men will learn their fate Sunday afternoon when the men’s bracket is revealed.

Delaware and Drexel, located an hour apart, are longtime rivals and on the women’s side most games have gone to the final minutes and in recent years both schools have set attendance records in their series with first-ever sellout crowds of either 5,000 plus at the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark or Drexel’s tiny 2,000-seat gym in West Philadelphia.

“Drexel’s obviously very well coached and they run a system that is really difficult to defend and obviously they’ve got kids who can really shoot the ball,” Delaware’s Martin said.

“I like Denise a lot. She and I are personal friends. We get along well and I think there’s a mutual respect between the two of us and it should be a great game.

“We’ve always had great games with them. Obviously, they’re a tough team and we’re a tough team so hopefully it should be a very good championship game,” she added.

“The bottom is we’ve both had really solid years and the Drexel kids, they play so hard and play smart, it’s going to be challenging – it was the first two times we played them.

“We came here to try to win a championship just like Drexel did and we’re both in the championship game. So let’s play. You know there’s a lot of team in this conference, and Drexel’s not one of them, that just talk, talk, talk, talk and the two teams in the conference final have a mutual respect for one another,” Martin said.

“It definitely is going to be a good game. Their system offensively is tough to defend and they’ve got such good shooters.”

Dillon, a 1996 Villanova graduate who last month became the all-time winningest women’s coach at Drexel, emulates the style of her coach – Wildcats legend Harry Perretta.

“They control the pace of the game,” Martin said. “That makes it difficult. And, obviously, their zone. They have tough kids who use their bodies well and they usually aren’t called for a lot of fouls even though they are a physical team. They’re constantly hitting people and not letting you make cuts and as a player against them, you have to take that contact and get to your spots and hopefully you can run your sets.

“Drexel has won a championship before and we’re hunting for our first CAA championship. And they’re led by seniors, they have a lot of seniors,” Martin explained.

“I thought whoever won this game was going to be difficult,” she said of the other semifinal after Delaware’s game was over. “I thought Drexel had a great shot of beating JMU because of their style and because of the way they played them the last two times. Drexel really executed well and got their seniors looks. They’re a very good team and obviously, they’ve jelled at the right time.”

Delaware won the America East title in 2001, the Blue Hen’s final year in the conference before heading to the CAA with Drexel, Hofstra and Northeastern.

In 2003, the Blue Hens tied for first and lost in the first of four appearances in the conference title game, including Sunday’s showdown with Drexel. In 2005, they finished first, ending Old Dominion’s long winning streaks at home and in the league, but fell to the Lady Monarchs in overtime in the title game and were not taken by the NCAA committee.

In 2007, they earned their second NCAA trip as an at-large squad.

The Guru will be tweeting from the championship at @womhoopsguru, potentially will be making a print guest appearance in the new Inquirer-Daily News configuration, in which case the blog here at the next sunrise will deal strictly with NCAA Selection Monday matters.

-- Mel

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