PHILADELPHIA – Drexel followed coach Denise Dillon's defensive game plan to near perfection. The Dragons fell just one stop short of pulling off one of the biggest wins in school history.
They bottled up Elena Delle Donne all afternoon Sunday, holding the nation's leading scorer to a season-low 12 points on 4-of-19 shooting. The Dragons constantly had two or three players around her, not allowing the junior forward many open looks.
Drexel held a 39-38 lead with 16 seconds left and had its best free throw shooter at the line. But Kamile Nacickaite missed the front end of a 1-and-1, giving No. 10 Delaware one final chance, and Delle Donne capitalized on a 15-footer with 2 seconds left to give the Blue Hens a 40-39 victory.
"It's amazing how it played out," Dillon said. "If you were going to draw it up, you wouldn't draw it up any other way. I feel we executed the plan on the defensive end, we just didn't take advantage."
Dillon knew the final play was going to go to Delle Donne, but there wasn't too much she could do to stop the junior star from getting the ball.
"She's 6-foot-5 so you can't fully deny her the ball," Dillon said. "You just count on showing the double. She's going to take a shot, it just has to be as contested as possible. It wasn't her greatest shooting night, we knew the ball was going to be in her hands in the end. She hit the shot."
Delle Donne struggled, missing 15 of her first 18 shots as she was constantly hounded by Drexel players. Yet, with the game on the line and her team trailing by a point, there was no doubt where Delaware's final shot would come from.
"I guess I had to make one tonight, and I'm glad it was that one," Delle Donne said. "I couldn't throw the ball in the ocean, glad my teammates picked me up. Nothing was going my way. We were able to pull it out and good teams are able to do that. It definitely was our gut check of the season so far."
The Blue Hens (24-1, 15-0 Colonial Athletic Association), who won their only previous CAA title in 2004-05, have 14 straight victories since their lone loss of the season to then-No. 5 Maryland. No CAA team had come within seven points of the Blue Hens all season.
"I really don't care how much I scored tonight, we won and that's all that matters," she said. "It was a very ugly win, but we won."
Tyler Hale scored 10 points to lead the Dragons (13-12, 9-6). They rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit to take a 39-37 lead on Hollie Mershon's layup with 1:38 left.
Delle Donne had a chance to tie the game with 25 seconds left, but the 90 percent free throw shooter could only convert one of two from the line as her second attempt rolled out.
She redeemed herself, catching the ball at the top of the key and dribbling to the right wing. She faked out the three people guarding her and leaned in to hit the 15-footer, pumping her fist as it swished through the net. It sent the strong contingent of Delaware fans, who made the hour drive up to the game, into a frenzy.
"It was poetic justice," Delaware coach Tina Martin said. "All game long she was hounded. It had a lot to do with why it was one of her toughest games. I don't care if she goes 0 for 12 or 13, I'm putting the ball in her hands at the end of the game and she's going to make the decision."
Drexel had one last chance, but Mershon's 35-footer at the buzzer fell short.
Trailing 24-14 early in the second half, Drexel rallied behind Hale. The senior forward had six points during a 12-4 run to get the Dragons to 28-26 with 13:11 left. Neither team hit a basket over the next 6 minutes. Hale's layup kept Drexel within two.
Mershon's three-point play with 4:05 left gave Drexel a 34-32 lead — its first since early in the game. Delle Donne answered with a 3-pointer to end Delaware's 10-minute drought without a field goal.
Mershon, who missed her first nine shots before her three-point play, connected on a 3-pointer to make it 37-35 with 3:14 left. After Lauren Carra's layup tied it with 1:59 left.
Drexel converted only four of its 23 shots as leading scorers Nacickaite and Mershon missed 13 of their 14 attempts. It was the second straight game that Drexel struggled in the first half. The Dragons trailed Old Dominion 27-13 at the break on Thursday before rallying for a 53-45 win.
That victory was Dillon's 145th at Drexel, giving her the most in school history. Drexel presented her with flowers before the game. Former coach Lil Haas, who won 144 games from 1982-93, was on hand for the celebration.