UPPER MARLBORO, Md. – Down by 17 points in the second half against mighty Delaware, Drexel could have coasted to the finish and been grateful for having the chance to play in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game for a second straight season.
Instead, the Dragons mounted a stunning rally that pushed the top-seeded Blue Hens to the absolute limit.
Drexel lost 59-56 Sunday, but the manner in which the Dragons fought back was enough to make coach Denise Dillon choke up with emotion during her postgame news conference.
After watching her upperclassmen valiantly absorb a bitter defeat, Dillon couldn't get out the words to express her appreciation.
"I just felt," she said, pausing for nearly 30 seconds before adding, "that with our seniors, they worked and deserved it. They've given every bit of effort."
Elena Della Donne scored 28 for top-seeded Delaware (30-3), which led 46-29 with 14:35 left before the Dragons (22-10) rallied to go in front 56-55 with 1:10 remaining. After Trumae Lucas made two free throws for Delaware with 44.4 seconds to go, Drexel's Abby Redick was called for traveling.
Delle Donne made two free throws with 9.9 seconds left, and Drexel never got off a final shot. Soon after that, the Blue Hens lined up to cut down the net to celebrate the CAA title and a return trip to the NCAA tournament.
The Dragons, unfortunately, had nothing left but to look forward to but a trip to the WNIT.
"You play," Dillon said. "If you can continue to play games, you do it. Postseason is a great reward for what you did during the year. I would play 100 more games with this team."
Although Delaware made only two baskets in the final 12 minutes and none after a three-point play by Akeema Richards with 6:17 remaining, Delle Donne insisted it was Drexel playing well rather than Delaware blowing it.
"When you're up on Drexel, you never feel comfortable until the clock hits zero," said Delle Donne, the tournament MVP. "They're a phenomenal team. They don't go away. I'd definitely say it was a great comeback on their part."
Taylor Wootton scored 21 for the third-seeded Dragons and Hollie Mershon had 18. Drexel also lost to Delaware in last year's championship game.
"Was I disappointed with the large deficit? Yeah," Dillon said. "But I wasn't surprised that our girls came back. They wouldn't quit."
Drexel lost by nine points and five points to Delaware during the regular season, and soon after halftime it appeared as if this game would be blowout.
The Blue Hens let a 12-point cushion dwindle to three at the break, then opened the second half with a 16-2 run. Delle Donne started the surge with a three-point play and added two layups, the last to provide the Blue Hens a 17-point lead.
But Drexel used a 13-0 run to get to 48-45, making Delaware sweat it out. Sort of.
"The people we had on the floor, they don't panic," Blue Hens coach Tina Martin said. "They're very calm. We've been through other tight games. I thought they handled the situation very, very well. We executed when we needed to execute."
Delle Donne scored 11 points on 4-for-11 shooting to stake Delaware to a 30-27 halftime lead.
The Blue Hens led 6-5 before Richards popped a 15-footer and Delle Donne made a baseline jumper and a 3-pointer to spark a 15-4 run that included two 3-pointers and a pair of free throws by Lucas.
After two free throws by Richards made it 28-20 with 4:42 left, Delaware went scoreless until Kayla Miller made a layup off an air ball by Lucas just before the buzzer.