Drury knocked off South Carolina-Aiken 84-75 on Thursday in Louisville in a game that saw the Panthers get up early, but have to fight back from a deficit before putting it away.
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“I thought our guys really showed some toughness last night, which they have done here recently,” Drury head coach Steve Hesser said. “They got four down and they didn’t panic. We did things we needed to do down the stretch to win a basketball game.”
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On Dec. 18, Drury and the Vikings were both undefeated going into the South Point Classic in Las Vegas.
The game was a back-and-forth affair. Drury began to seize the momentum with 2:17 to play when Cameron Adams tied the game at 67 with one of his signature dunks, but the referees assessed him a technical for hanging on the rim.
The Vikings took the lead back and wouldn’t surrender it again, as Drury failed to convert down the stretch on the way to a 72-69 loss for the Panthers.
“That just came down to do you make a play at the right time or do they make a play at the right time,” Hesser said. “We came up a hair short.”
Both teams struggled from the field in the game with Drury shooting just 38.5-percent from the field and a dismal 15.4-percent from 3-point range. Washington was even worse at 33.3-percent from the field.
The defensive strategy the Vikings employed against Drury opened some eyes for the Panthers that changed their season.
“We have gotten better offensively. I think Western Washington taught us something,” Hesser said. “One of the things we stressed is that we have to move the ball faster because they really tried to take Alex out of the game in Vegas and they cheated not only his man, but another man to keep him from getting good looks.”
It may have been just the first loss for the Panthers, but senior point guard Brandon Lockhart saw it as a new lease on the season.
“That loss really woke us up,” Lockhart said. “It turned our season around I would say.”
And things have changed since that loss. Mainly, the Panthers have won 21 games in a row by navigating the treacherous GLVC regular season, conference tournament and Midwest regional tournament at home.
“The Great Lakes Valley could be one of the best D2 conferences in the country,” Hesser said. “We’ve had a good stretch in the conference tournament and the regional tournament; it has toughened us up.”
That toughness will be necessary on Saturday because Washington is big and will stretch the Panthers defensively. The Vikings start two players that measure out at 6-foot-9 in senior center Chris Mitchell and junior Austin Bragg. Mitchell led the way with 16 points and eight rebounds in December.
Senior Teddy Simniok, junior Ian Carter and sophomore Cameron Adams will have to make the Vikings pay down low if they try to load up on the Drury guards again.
“That is one of our keys before every game. We need some inside scoring because teams try to cheat and do things to obviously hurt Alex. When they do that we have to take advantage and get the basketball inside,” Hesser said. “We have been fortunate that a combination of the three with Ian Carter, Teddy Simniok and Cameron Adams that one or two of them have stepped up on a consistent basis to give us that inside scoring.”
Washington State transfer John Allen and his backcourt mate Richard Woodworth also created havoc for the Panthers. The 6-foot-1 senior was averaging 17.3 points per game coming into the NCAA Elite 8 and had 15 points against the Panthers in December. Woodworth, a 6-foot-3 guard, scored 12 points in December and picked Drury pockets four times.
Hesser sees the perimeter game as the battle to watch on Saturday.
“It is a guard’s game,” Hesser said. “Their two guards are very good. Their bigs can stretch you to the 3-point line and they space you really well. You really need to be sound defensively and you have to be collective defensively because you are going to have to help and you are going to have to get back to your guy.”
Drury is a different team now than it was then and is ready for the opportunity at redemption.
“I am pretty excited to play a team that we lost to earlier,” Lockhart said. “I think we play a lot better together on both ends of the court, and now we are playing for each other a lot more.”
The offensive game Drury will throw at the Vikings will look a bit different from the December game in Las Vegas.
“We stressed moving the ball faster than the defense can catch up and the guys bought into it,” Hesser said. “When other teams tried to do it after that (Washington game) we took advantage of them trying to cheat on Alex and got the ball other places.”
Defensively, Drury won’t alter much philosophically.
“We don’t change a lot,” Hesser said. “We have a defensive system that we play. We start teaching it in October and hopefully as we progress through the season we continue to get better. Basically we are going to do what we have done for the last 30 games.”
That defense will have to step up both inside and on the perimeter to beat the defending National Champions who are averaging 84.2 points per game, which is good for ninth in Division II.
“Defense is our biggest key,” Adams said. “We pride ourselves on getting stops in crunch time. They have a big that can shoot threes, but if we get out there on him I am confident we can put a holster on that.”
Drury sees going in to the game against a team they have played as a good thing.
“I think the familiarity of knowing that we have played them and how we have stacked up against them lets them know what they have to do to be successful,” Hesser said.
And if the Panthers get down in the game, expect the veteran group to draw on its experience from both this season and last to continue to battle.
“The thing that the coaching staff is most proud of is that the guys who are doing the majority of the playing were here last year,” Hesser said. “They were 17-11 (last year). They got better. They got in the gym and they worked and they committed to each other.”
Drury tips off against Western Washington at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday in Louisville at Freedom Hall. The winner earns a berth in the Division II National Championship on Sunday, Apr. 7 in Atlanta at 3 p.m.