- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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UPPER MARLBORO, Md. -- Drexel's reward for solving the riddle in a game between the two stingiest defenses in the Colonial Athletic Association is a chance to guard a well-rested Elena Delle Donne for 40 minutes on Sunday.
It doesn't sound like much of a prize, but it beat what James Madison found behind the other door in the Show Place Arena.
And in a venue home to equine guests as often as those of the basketball-playing variety, Drexel's 67-50 victory against James Madison gives a team once the darkest of horses a chance to finish out a stretch run to remember with a win against the conference's Secretariat and the place in the NCAA tournament that is Sunday's prize. That a team that saved its season with defense will have to defend the best scorer in the nation is how titles should be decided.
Not to mention that it almost happened once already.
No CAA opponent beat No. 8 Delaware en route to the Blue Hens' undefeated regular-season championship and a spot in the title game. Few even came close. Delaware routed North Carolina-Wilmington in Saturday's first semifinal, leading by as many as 30 points in the first half and resting its starters down the stretch in a 66-39 win. Only three times in 20 games against conference foes has Delaware failed to win by single digits. Only once did it win by fewer than seven points, but that singular aberration was as close as close gets. It took a Delle Donne shot over multiple defenders with two seconds left for the Blue Hens to escape Philadelphia with a 40-39 win over Drexel on Feb. 19.
That result paved the way to perfection for Delaware, something its members sounded intent Saturday on finishing up, but it also solidified Drexel's resurgence.
The Dragons opened the season with seven losses in their first 12 games. By the time they lost to George Mason in their first February game they were 10-10 with some quality losses -- Princeton, South Carolina and Delaware among them -- but also more than a few puzzling setbacks. Sitting at .500 with a month to play in the regular season, coach Denise Dillon showed her team one of its own posters, an easier visual than finding a mirror big enough for an entire roster. She told them to look at the poster and realize they were looking at a .500 team, to own what they had earned.
For the entire team, but especially four seniors who won a conference championship when they were freshmen, it was a harsh reality. You can think you're as good as you want, but your record gets the final word.
"It kind of made me feel mediocre, and I knew that we were a great and talented team," senior Marisa Crane said. "We just told each other what we had to do. We started coming together instead of separating and having our moments where we were kind of in our heads, as opposed to talking to others."
Drexel won eight of its final 10 games to rise to third in the standings, its only losses an overtime setback at James Madison and the heartbreaker at home against Delaware. Whether the improved chemistry was the chicken or the egg in the equation, always a subject for debate, the new resolve resulted in, or was strengthened by, a defense already doing its fair share taking things up a notch. Only one opponent in that closing stretch topped 60 points and half failed to reach even 50 points in regulation. For the first time since Drexel swept the CAA regular-season and tournament titles during the 2008-09 season, opponents are shooting worse than 40 percent from the field.
A star for Villanova under Harry Perretta, Dillon doesn't necessarily mimic every aspect of her former mentor's system when it comes to slowing games to a crawl, or at least a slow walk, but playing the Dragons requires plenty of patience and a certain comfort level with confined spaces when you have the ball on offense. You aren't going to get many clean looks, and you're going to have to work for tough ones.
"Playing together is what we're definitely doing a much better job of," Dillon said. "The team chemistry has come together. I think on the defensive end we've always been strong, and the team recognized that and started identifying themselves as a defensive team. I love the offensive end of it, the strategy of it, so with them just focusing on defense it allowed us to dictate a little bit more on the offensive end and who was going to get the looks."
James Madison entered Saturday's game with a calling-card defense of its own, first in the league in opponents' field goal percentage by a wide margin, and for a time looked ready to trade stop for stop with Drexel. The conference's top defender, Nikki Newman, took Drexel star Kamile Nacickaite completely out of her rhythm early on. A streaky scorer who averages better than 17 points per game but shoots less than 40 percent from the field, Nacickaite was 0-for-5 with four turnovers at one point in the first half and spent six minutes on the bench, listening to Dillon tell her to slow down. But two late field goals from Nacickaite staked the Dragons to a 30-22 halftime lead, and an 11-3 run to open the second half left James Madison with little to do but press for its basketball life. The Dukes shot 33 percent in the first half and 33 percent in the second half.
Now they just need to stop the best scorer in college basketball.
After her team's easy win, Delaware coach Tina Martin reiterated a familiar mantra about the team being much more than its star, and that to be truly successful a team must have both the star and the players around her. The Blue Hens didn't have much need for either in a game in which Delle Donne played just 18 minutes and no Delaware starter played more than 23, but Drexel went out and lent credence to Martin's point. Nacickaite finished with 16 points and 15 rebounds, but the Dragons won because the rest of the roster did its jobs and then some, from Crane hitting two early 3-pointers, 20 percent of her total for the season, to limiting Dukes star Tarik Hislop to 6-of-20 shooting.
Martin stressed it's about more than Delle Donne, and Dillon stressed her team can't let Delaware's other players add to whatever damage Delaware's star is bound to do. But after three seasons and half a dozen games getting familiar with Delle Donne (games in which she shot 39 percent but came out on the winning side four times), there's no doubt about the focus of Drexel's defensive effort.
"She's tremendous; there are no ifs, ands or buts about it," Dillon said of Delle Donne. "She's focused, and she's going to do everything possible to get the championship that they have had set as the goal since the beginning of the year. So it certainly doesn't get easier, but the understanding of what she's looking to do, what they're looking to do with her, is comfortable with our team."
Delaware enters Sunday's final with another chance to show it's a team capable of making history. Drexel enters hoping its season won't be forgotten. It's a tall order for the underdog, but it sure beats finishing third.
"I don't think that any of us would want it any other way," Crane said. "I think the team that we would like to see in the championship is Delaware. It's extremely hard to beat a team three times, so hopefully the third time's the charm for us. It's the most important game."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Email him at Graham.Hays@espn.com.
14dBonnie D. Ford