Drexel's D gives No. 4 Arizona scare in near upset

Drexel's D gives No. 4 Arizona scare in near upset
November 28, 2013, 1:15 am

Drexel held Arizona to just 20 points in the first half, but eventually fell to the Wildcats 66-62 Wednesday. (AP)

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- Bruiser Flint has established a national reputation as a defensive mastermind during his 13-year tenure at Drexel.

Wednesday night, that reputation held true as his team held Arizona, the sixth-best shooting team in the country, to just 20 points in the first 20 minutes.

But the best defensive effort No. 4 Arizona has faced all season still wasn’t good enough for Flint’s Dragons as they lost to the Wildcats, 66-62, in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off (see Instant Replay).

After the Wildcats were limited to just six made field goals in the first half, they came alive out of halftime and scored 46 points in the final 20 minutes, more than doubling their first half output.

Drexel guard Chris Fouch assumed the Wildcats had simply come out in the first half and underestimated their opponents.

“They must’ve come out there thinking we weren’t going to be that good, and so we kind of just punched them right in the face, and we wanted to keep it on," he said.

Arizona head coach Sean Miller, a longtime friend of Flint, made sure it was known that was not the case.

“I think the easy storyline in a game like this is to say maybe Arizona overlooked Drexel,” Miller said. “That’s the furthest thing from the truth. We watched for five, six, seven days, whatever the length from our last game to tonight. We invested a lot of time watching them, and it became apparent to me that we were in for one heck of a battle.

“And keep in mind one of their starters, their frontcourt players and a real key to their team did not play tonight.”

Arizona didn’t overlook its opponent. The seismic halftime shift came from the single defensive flaw in Drexel’s armor: The Dragons’ big men have a penchant for getting in foul trouble.

Dartaye Ruffin, Drexel’s premier defender in the paint, picked up three fouls in the first half of the game, a crushing blow for the team’s interior defense. With junior forward Kazembe Abif already missing the game with a concussion, the paint opened up for the Wildcats when Flint decided to start the second half with Ruffin on the bench.

It showed. Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski -- a career 7.7 points per game scorer -- dropped 13 of his career-high 15 points in the second half, going 7 for 12 on the night.

His offensive explosion in the final 20 minutes was the driving force behind Arizona’s comeback.

“We kind of came out flat in the first half and we wanted to come out strong in the second half,” Tarczewski said. “Our guards did a great job of getting me the ball. I know I missed a few easy ones early, but they kept getting me the ball and I really owe it to them.”

Flint was visibly irked after the game about the problems his team had keeping Ruffin on the floor.

“You know I want to play good D the whole game,” Flint said. “A big part of the game was Dartaye sat a lot in the second half. [Tarczewski] started making plays, and that was it right there. When [Ruffin] was in the game, it was a different game around the basket, but when he goes out, they hurt us a little bit.

“And not only that, because we’re helping with them, the other guys on the other side of the rim [beat us], too.”

Flint was right -- the entire Wildcats offense jumped on the Dragons’ defensive struggles in the second half. Point guard T.J. McConnell finished with 11 points, nine of which he scored in the second half. Senior guard Nick Johnson scored 12 of his team-high 20 points in the second half. And, of course, Tarczewski came alive.

Yet, the Drexel head coach said he still thought his team did a good job against Miller’s team defensively. In a way, he was right. His team held the Wildcats under 40 percent from the field for the first time all season. They dictated the style in their favor; that is, they made it a defense-oriented game.

Sometimes your best just isn’t enough. And then sometimes your best is in foul trouble.