By KEVIN ROSSI
NEW YORK - The Drexel Dragons spoiled a 19-point first-half lead of the No. 4 Arizona Wildcats to fall in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament by a score of 66-62. Drexel’s Chris Fouch paced all scorers with 29 points 0n 11 of 27 shooting (3 for 11 3-pointers). Nick Johnson led the Wildcats with 20 points.
People who know basketball knew that the Drexel Dragons would put up a fight against the No. 4 Arizona Wildcats. But a 19-point lead in the first half? No way, that’s crazy. Bruiser Flint’s squad came out confident, though, jumping right on Sean Miller’s Wildcats, holding an improbably 27-8 lead with 6:59 to play in the first half.
“We felt like we could beat one of the best teams in the country,” Fouch said about the feeling of being up 19 on a top team. “I guess they came out thinking that we weren’t going to be that good, and we came out and punched them in their face. We just wanted to keep it on them.”
Arizona would not go away lightly. They chipped away at Drexel’s advantage, holding the Dragons scoreless for nearly five and a half minutes and going on an 11-0 run during that time. At the half, the Drexel lead was already cut to 29-20.
The Wildcats came out looking like one of the nation’s top teams in the second half, working the game to a 31-31 tie within three minutes.
Arizona was able to find their big men inside and take advantage of a Drexel interior that saw Dartaye Ruffin play only 25 minutes and was missing Kaz Abif (concussion) from the start. Freshman forward Rodney Williams stepped in to give Flint 35 minutes and 10 rebounds and freshman Mohamed Bah played 13 minutes, but being charged with guarding the likes of Brandon Ashley, Aaron Gordon, and Kaleb Tarczewski is a tall order for any player in the country. Both Gordon (10 points, 13 rebounds) and Tarczewski (15 points, 10 rebounds) finished with double-doubles.
“Our young guys have gotten better every game,” Flint said. “They were in a tough situation tonight because we didn’t have Kaz and they were out there tonight against some pretty good athletes. They just have to continue to get better.”
With 10:29 left to play in the game, Damion Lee slashed from the left wing into the lane near the free throw line. He put up a shot fading to the right to extend Drexel’s 41-38 lead. He came down awkwardly on his right leg and was slowly helped off the floor straight into the locker room by team trainers without putting any weight on the injured leg.
Lee will miss Friday’s game and will be re-evaluated by a doctor on Friday.
After Lee went down, Johnson took over the Wildcats’ scoring attack. The junior guard scored all 12 of his second half points after Lee’s injury, finishing with 20 points on the night. Johnson was able to create opportunities in transition, something that Flint said hurt the Dragons in the end.
“We missed a lot of the shots that we made in the first half and we got into foul trouble,” Flint said. “One of the things in the second half is I felt like we let them get too many baskets in transition. I thought we did a good job against that in the first half.”
Losing Lee put the scoring onus squarely on the shoulders of Fouch and Frantz Massenat (17 points) with Tavon Allen (6 points on 2 of 12 shooting) having an off night. Still, Drexel was able to hang tough even when it seemed that the game was getting away from them. At one point, the Arizona lead ballooned to eight with 1:24 left to play, but the Blue and Gold were able to cut the score to four with chances to score and 19 seconds to go.
The Wildcats held on to win in the end, 66-62.
“You know I’m disappointed, we were up 19 (points),” Flint said. “We didn’t make the plays we needed to in the second half.”
He continued,”I told our guys that for us to win these types of games, we have to make plays when it’s time for plays to be made. We didn’t do that. They (Arizona) were good enough to make them, and they did.”
Although the game technically will go in the loss column for the Dragons, this is not a loss for the team or the fans to hang their heads on. They played the No. 4 team in the country down to the wire missing one starter for the entire game and another for a quarter of it.
Miller summed it up the best in his post-game press conference when he spoke about the team’s preparation for their game against Drexel. “We invested a lot of time watching them and it became apparent to me that we were in for one heck of a battle,” Miller said. “Keep in mind, one of their starting front court players, a real key to their team, did not play.”
He continued, “What Bruiser has done at Drexel is just amazing. 13 years there and the team he has right now, if they can remain healthy, they are going to win a lot of games.”
With the victory, Arizona will play No. 6 Duke in the NIT Season Tip-Off final on Friday at 6:00 p.m.
Drexel (3-2) will move to the third place game on Friday at 3:30 p.m. at Madison Square Garden and take on Alabama.
–Drexel notebook: Damion Lee gives Aaron Bracy an update on his status in Bracy’s Drexel notebook.
Notes: Drexel shot seven free throws and made five. Arizona shot 30 and made 23. … The Dragons were whistled for 22 personal fouls. The Wildcats were called for 12. … Drexel held Arizona to 26 percent shooting (6 for 23) in the first half. Arizona shot 46.7 percent (14 for 30) in the second. … The Dragons forced 14 turnovers. Arizona only averages 10 per game. … Drexel turned the ball over only five times. They average 10.3. … Chris Fouch and Frantz Massenat combined for 46 of Drexel’s 62 points (nearly three fourths). … Chester, Pa. product Rondaw Hollis-Jefferson was held to four points and two rebounds. He had been averaging 10 points and 3.8 rebounds per game coming in.