The air in Drexel's 19-point lead was dissipating like a slow leak in one of those Kevlar balloons. The halftime buzzer managed to squeeze tight on that leak, at least for 15 minutes while everyone sat in the locker room.
The scoreboard at that point had Drexel up just nine, but things were definitely not going in their direction. The Dragons had made life hell for Arizona right out of the opening tip, causing turnovers, making the Wildcats take bad shots, and playing impressive interior defense.
Twenty minutes of game time later, that balloon lay on the floor fully depleted, and then some. Arizona was walking away with a 66-62 win, and a spot in the Preseason NIT finals against the winner of Duke and Alabama. Drexel was taking its dashed hopes for a quality win back to the hotel yet again, a common theme over the last few seasons.
What went wrong?
There were certainly two big occurrences that helped the air escape a little more quickly.
The first occurred just 15 seconds into the second half, when Rodney Williams picked up his third foul, joining fellow big man Dartaye Ruffin, who grabbed his third with 40 seconds left in the first half.
Both Drexel big men were then essentially hobbled on both sides of the ball. Bruiser Flint was forced to play Goran Pantovic to spell both big men. Suddenly the opening lineup had been replaced by Mohammed Bah and Pantovic, two players who had just 20 minutes between them this season coming into the night, all of them by Bah.
The Dragons were already short-handed, playing without Kazembe Abif, who couldn't pass a concussion test and play. Now that blow to the head was giving all of Drexel throbbing pains.
The lack of a strong inside presence let Arizona's Kaleb Tarczewski go to work inside. He got open and was rarely challenged for anything in the second half.
Meanwhile, Drexel's shooting couldn't catch fire again, mostly because the loss of the two interior men meant that so much of the attention could be focused on Chris Fouch, or Frantz Massenat, or Damion Lee. Arizona could go smaller and wider in their defense. No longer could the threat of a pass inside be enough to allow the Dragon backcourt to penetrate and tear drop it in.
But still, the Dragons hung with the Wildcats, until the second big blow: an injury to Lee that has yet to be fully disclosed. Lee went down in a heap on the floor after launching awkwardly for a shot midway through the half. He was helped off the floor and never returned.
Reports from the locker room said that a formal announcement wouldn't be made until Thursday. Happy Thanksgiving, Drexel.
Without Lee, the choices for Arizona defenders became easier and the game slipped away as shot after shot for Drexel would be contested by one, two or even three Wildcats.
The lead would get to 10 for Arizona, but the Dragons kept close with a couple of nice 3-point baskets and some and-ones. But the air was gone as soon as that lead grew to four for the Wildcats.
The Dragon faithful can take solace in how hard this team played down the stretch, but were it not for dreadful shooting from Arizona early in the game, and the 19-point lead that Drexel had, it could have been much uglier. You saw the Wildcat team that is ranked so highly in the country take control of the game.
But those happy feelings might need to be tempered a tad. The injury to Lee could really hurt this team over the course of the year, and when Drexel's guards aren't all there (as they saw with Fouch's injury last season), it can make for a long season. No one knows when Abif will be back either, and that means that this team is suddenly left with a very, very short bench.
Fouch finished with 29 points on 11 of 27 shooting and Massenat scored 17 points in the loss. Williams had nine rebounds and four blocks inside for the Dragons.
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