Drexel Upset Bid Foiled by JMU Which Meets Elon in CAA Title Game
It was almost but not quite 2009 once more for Drexel Friday night in a Colonial Athletic Association women’s basketball tournament semifinal game at James Madison’s Convocation Center in Harrisonburg, Va.
That’s the year the Dragons took down the Dukes on JMU’s court in the conference title game to earn their only bid to the NCAA tournament.
But after a terrific first half, third-seeded Drexel’s attempt to neutralize home court disadvantage was overrun by a thunderous JMU rally as the second-seeded Dukes, the defending CAA champions, erased a 12-point deficit and went on to 76-68 victory and a spot in Saturday’s title game against top-seeded Elon.
The Phoenix (26-6) took the opener, beating fourth-seeded William & Mary 88-60 to make it to their first conference title game their third year in the league.
Though JMU (24-7) is the underdog by seed designation, make no mistake, in reality the Dukes will be the favorite in their fourth-straight title game.
During the season, they swept Elon and were locked into a first place tie in the standings with the Phoenix until a loss in the final week put them on a CAA bracket collision course with Drexel (21-10), which has now dropped all three games against JMU.
Dukes senior Precious Hall lived up to her name as the conference player of the year was simply precious scoring 37 points off 13-for-26 shooting from the field, including 5-of-13 three-pointers, while freshman Kamiah Smalls of Philadelhia’s Neumann-Gorretti High scored 12
Sarah Curran scored 22 for Drexel, including connecting on a near-perfect 4-for-5 on attempted three-balls, and dealt four assists. Archbishop Woods’ Bailey Greenberg, who joined Smalls, the top CAA newcomer, on the All-CAA freshman team, scored 12 and Sarah Woods scored 11.
Hall also has a previous top CAA honor but missed last season with a knee injury.
“What we did in the second half is exactly who we are,” said JMU coach Sean O’Regan, who was promoted after last season when longtime Dukes coach Kenny Brooks moved down the road to take the Virginia Tech job in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“That was the part I really enjoyed – playing with intensity. Making the tempo our tempo and watching one of the best players in the country go to work. It was an enjoyable second half for me, but I credit Drexel. Every time we play them is an absolute dogfight.”
The CAA had held its tourney in recent seasons at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md., in suburban Washington. But the conference shifted back to home courts with JMU getting the nod this time, Drexel will host in the Daskalakis Athletic Center next season, and Delaware will host in 2019.
“This is once in a lifetime,” O’Reagan said. “We may never get to host again. This is once in a lifetime to get an opportunity to play in a championship game on your home floor. It’s 40 minutes on your home floor for a CAA championship.”
It’s one both teams will need to win to get to the NCAA tournament via the automatic bid that goes to the CAA winner because neither is in a strong position to land one of the 32 available at-large slots that began dwindling last weekend when the Power 5 conferences, responsible for most of the teams in the Associated Press women’s poll, played their tourneys.
The runnerup will land in the WNIT and Drexel, which claimed the title in 2013, is also likely to land in that 64-team field.
Drexel coach Denise Dillon said as much, saying she is “counting” on getting a bid. She can also count on likely landing a host site.
But for a brief moment, the Dragons seemed headed to stay on the NCAA path in the first of two big hurdles when they took a 12-point lead late in the opening half.
“Not the start we wanted,” O’Reagan said. “In the first half it was like we were there, we were playing defense, but we weren’t making them miss.”
But a 17-4 run in the second half carried the Dukes forward.
“They went on a run and we didn’t score the ball,” Curran said.
For Hall, she gets to close out the latest championship effort on her home floor.
“I think my motivation is not to let anyone celebrate on my home court. I’m going to come out even better and stronger tomorrow.”
Strong is what Elon was in Friday’s opener against William & Mary (20-11), which ousted fifth-seeded Delaware in the quarterfinals on Thursday.
It will be the Phoenix’s first title game appearance under coach Charlotte Smith, a former University of North Carolina star, and first for the program since the 2000-01 Big South finals.
“We talked about today and taking the next step for our program and making history,” Smith said. “We talked about the things that have gotten us this far, which is defense and rebounding.”
Lauren Brown topped four Elon players in double figures with 25 points, while Shay Burnett scored 20, Malaya Johnson scored 15 and Jennifer Rhodes had 12 points and 10 rebounds.
”We have players who are capable of stepping up every night and taking over a game, but we don’t have to because we have so much balance,” Smith said.
Marlena Tremba, who got in early foul trouble, got 14 points for William & Mary while Alexandra Msdquel also scored in double figures for the Tribe with 11 points.
It was William & Mary’s first semifinal in 16 seasons and the Tribe is also a strong candidate to land in the WNIT field.