By ADAM BOOTH
PISCATAWAY, N.J. – Drexel came into its quarterfinal matchup in the NIT Season Tip-Off tournament with only one goal in mind: Make it to New York.
If Drexel won its next contest, then they would be spending the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday in Manhattan playing in Madison Square Garden, the self-proclaimed world’s most famous arena. For the night, they were across the Hudson River in New Brunswick, and their last obstacle between them and the Holland Tunnel was the host team, Rutgers.
And the Dragons accomplished their goal, defeating Rutgers 70-59 Tuesday night to advance to the NIT semifinals next Wednesday against the winner of Tuesday night’s Arizona-Rhode Island game.
Coach Bruiser Flint saw his team come out possibly a bit excited to start play. In what eventually became a defensive struggle in the first half, began with five Drexel fouls in the first three minutes of the contest. Two of them picked up by Chris Fouch, who sat out 17 of the first 20 minutes of the game. His scoring touch was missed for much of the first half the Dragons struggled to get points.
Thankfully, Rutgers was going through similar issues on the offensive end. Only tallying 22 points in the first half Drexel also put together a strong effort stopping the penetration early in the half.
The second half ended uniquely with Damion Lee picking up a flagrant foul while on offense, then got tangled up on the defensive end and picked up offsetting technical fouls. The play never got really chippy, but a more physical tone was set for the rest of the contest. This was a battle Rutgers head coach Eddie Jordan admits, that went to the Dragons.
“It was a physical game, then it became and emotional game for a stretch,” Jordan said. “They kept running their system and kept coming at us and we have to learn to do the same thing.”
The second half of the game opened up for both teams of the offensive side. Drexel, which shot 38% in the first half, hit over 50% of their shots in the second half posting 43 points. Rutgers hovered around 46% after 32% in the first. The two keys for that surge in production were Fouch and Tavon Allen (pictured above against St. Joe’s last season). After starting the game with two quick fouls in the first two minutes, Fouch had to sit for the rest of the half. He made the most of his minutes in the second half scoring all of his 10 points in the first 7 minutes to push the Drexel lead into double digits.
After a run by Rutgers cut the lead to 1, the sophomore Allen scored the next 9 points for the Dragons, silencing the crowd and putting the Scarlet Knights away for good.
“I was just in a zone I don’t know,” said Allen with a big smile on his face. “There was just a rush going through my body. It was exciting to play like that.”
Allen has made some strides this year to be a better all-around player. Strides for which coach Flint acknowledged post game.
“He’s got more confidence,” Flint exclaimed. “After the UCLA game I said, ‘My man, I saw a different player in the preseason. I want see that guy from the preseason.’ That guy has been here the last two games.”
Allen’s offensive production wasn’t the only thing Flint praised, “I hate to say it to him because he is going to get a littlebig-headed, but he played some defense too which is not one of his strong suits.”
Allen pointed to his confidence’s improvement, noting that his play on the defensive end is a major contributor.
“It improved a lot,” Allen said. “Last year I didn’t play a lot because I was struggling on defense. This year coach is just pushing me to be the best player that I can be and I am just taking that to heart. “
If he continues to put together evenings like this, Allen will see a lot of the floor and a lot of coach Flint’s good side.
After the physicality of the beginning of the half, Drexel was able to open up and play a bit of fast break ball. This was a style of play that seemed to suit them well in the late stages of the contest, taking Rutgers out of it for good. Drexel’s 16 fast break points and 13 off of turnovers were numbers that propelled the team to victory.
Towards the end, it became fun for the Dragons.
“We had a lot of fun out there,” Allen said. “When you are playing with your boys, you already know it’s going to be a fun time.” .
“I’ve never been to Madison Square Garden,” he admits. “Always walked by it, never been inside.”
He will finally get his chance.