Between two obvious Drexel advantages going against Arizona on Wednesday and the Wildcats seemingly shoe-shopping in the city or looking ahead to Duke, the start of an NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal couldn't have gone worse for Sean Miller's team.
The finish could've.
The Wildcats overcame a 19-point first-half deficit to beat a speedy Dragons team that needed injuries, cramps and foul trouble to go against it just to lose by four, 66-62, in Madison Square Garden.
The Dragons used their small lineup and three-point shooting to get ahead of a sleepy UA team early, but in the end it was the wear of Arizona's defense -- it was helped by Drexel's lack of depth -- that turned the tide for the Wildcats.
Frantz Massenat, Chris Fouch and Damion Lee were the only Dragons to score well into the second half, but even their contested shots fell early on. Drexel built a 27-8 lead with seven minutes to go in the first half, and it was especially helped with Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley looking lost from the onset. ESPN analyst Dan Dakich called for Tarczewski to sit against a smaller Drexel team after he was forced into multiple travels in the first half. Meanwhile, Aaron Gordon and Ashley forced the issue, dribbling among the Dragon guards and struggling to finish. That or they simply failed to maintain control of the ball.
Don't get it twisted. Drexel threw body blow after body blow at the Wildcats, making a big frontcourt look silly before hanging in late in the second half. UA didn't record an assist in the first half and trailed 29-20 at halftime despite shooting 26 percent from the floor and turning the ball over 10 times.
Then the luck went in Arizona's favor.
Massenat left the game with leg cramps with 10 minutes to play after the Wildcats started on a 13-2 run to start the second half. Dion Lee later exited with a non-contact knee injury.
Tarczewski made the biggest turnaround, finding post position and demanding the ball against a Drexel frontcourt that, during the blitzing of the first half, had quietly gotten into foul trouble. Drexel was already without starting forward Kazembe Abif, who was suffering from concussion symptoms. The Dragons' biggest player, 240-pound Dartaye Ruffin, didn't start the second half because of foul issues. And that's when Tarczewski got hot.
He finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds after a timid first-half. In the second, he looked like a new man, dunking and doing a pull-up on the rim to force the referees to call a technical.
Once Arizona took a lead, the Dragons still refused to go away. Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell began the second half with a layup and a three to give the Wildcats a bump in momentum, but he needed to hit another three-pointer in the final two minutes to give UA its biggest lead, 59-49. Drexel still found itself within four points with 19 second left.
On a night when Brandon Ashley hit 1-of-8 shots, and with Gabe York going 0-for-6 from the floor on a bench unit that scored just six points, Nick Johnson was one of few bright spots. Johnson scored 20 points with timely baskets and attacked the paint to earn nine points from the foul stripe -- Drexel only went 5-for-7 from the foul line all night.
Johnson had five boards and four assists, taking the majority of the backup point guard minutes with McConnell in foul trouble.
The Wildcats got a strong defensive effort from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. His part in a smallball lineup during the first half finally pulled the momentum in UA's favor. And Aaron Gordon, who struggled mightily with decision-making, still put forth a strong effort to finish with 11 points and 12 rebounds.
In the end, the Wildcats were left exposed, as most teams have at this point. The slow start was potentially a result of the youth Sean Miller has warned of all year long. But the push-back and result was a sign that, even when only a few players have big days, Arizona can beat anyone.
At the same time, feel for Drexel. Hardly anything went in the Dragons' favor after the hot start. They nearly made a statement at MSG.
If anything, they got the Wildcats' attention.