NEW YORK – For Drexel to take home the third place game in the NIT Season Tip-Off the way they did, they had to persevere through a lot. While the challenges that came with Friday were not minimal, the Dragons have a couple of key players in the game who have had to persevere through more in their college careers.
For Chris Fouch and Kazembe Abif, Friday was just one more challenge in a college career that has had plenty of them.
Fouch is in his sixth year now, so if it seems like he’s been around forever, well, he basically has been. It’s been six injury-riddled years for the Bronx native, who was playing at Madison Square Garden this week for the first time since he played in the Jordan Classic after his senior year of high school, a time that might have seemed like a lifetime ago.
“You know, I had a lot of goals when I decided to come back, and I found out I was in the preseason NIT,” said Fouch, who led the Dragons with 19 points on Friday. “That was my first goal, to get back to New York and play here and play in this building.”
There were high expectations for Fouch when he got to college, but he didn’t get to show them right away as a torn ACL ended his true freshman year before it started. Then last year, he had to miss some early games due to injury, then a broken ankle three games into his season shelved him and left a question as to his future.
Fouch got a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA and opted to come back once more, and early on it looks like a good decision as he led the Dragons to New York. And with the Dragons trailing by two in the final minute, it was just one more challenge to overcome, and Fouch did that by getting a deflected ball and a layup with 12 seconds left that would send the game into the first of three overtimes.
In the second extra session, Fouch drove to the basket in the closing seconds and took a lot of contact, but got no call. A third extra session followed. Another bout with adversity.
Abif, meanwhile, didn’t enter college with expectations as high as Fouch, but he looked like a great fit for how Flint’s teams play. He has a competitive motor that’s always going and can rebound inside. But he’s been derailed because of health issues as well, though his issues have been of a different nature. He lost about 30 pounds due to a blood disorder near the end of his freshman year, and the recovery took away his off-season. So while he played last season, he was far from full strength because he never had a full recovery and rehab.
This off-season, Abif was healthy and able to regain strength and put back on some of the weight. He’s starting to look like the player he was in high school, and that was never more the case than on Friday when he played 46 minutes off the bench and had his first career double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. That included seven of each after the first overtime, when foul trouble continued to mount for the Dragons. The 15 points was a career high, and while Abif would eventually join three others in fouling out, they don’t win the game without him.
As if all of that wasn’t enough, the Dragons were without star guard Damion Lee, who was out with a knee injury the extent of which is not known. Then foul trouble mounted well before overtime, and it started on the perimeter. First, Frantz Massenat picked up his second foul near the halfway point of the half. Tavon Allen picked up his third foul with 8:35 left in the half, with all three coming within 85 seconds of each other. Before you knew it, Allen was back in, while Massenat picked up his third foul less than half a minute later. The Dragons needed to either ride or die with Major Canady, who at times looked like he’s not ready for this kind of game, or have their regulars be less aggressive.
The odds might have seemed long, but Drexel actually built a 32-21 halftime lead after being up just three when both had two fouls. Allen never picked up another foul the rest of the game and played 53 of 55 minutes. And the last eight minutes of the half might have won the game, even though three overtimes were needed to decide it.
Wednesday night was a disappointing loss for the Dragons considering they were up 27-8 early on. After they got the lead to that point, a lid went on the basket and Fouch & Co. couldn’t buy a basket. Fouch finished with 29 points, but the feeling was a bit empty as they had a chance to play in the second game on Friday.
Drexel comes away feeling even better about their chances to contend in the Colonial Athletic Association this season. They also have found that Rodney Williams can contribute significantly, and they’ll be okay with Mohamed Bah as well up front. This early in the season there is always something learned, and Flint didn’t shy away from that.
“We’ve got to learn some things from it, because we probably won and lost it probably eight times,” said Flint. “But we were able to pull it out in the end and I got a lot of contributions from some guys that don’t really play that much. If they continue to play better, that makes us a better team.”
But the overriding theme from Friday is overcoming adversity, and it’s pretty clear that this team is well-equipped to deal with the adversity that always comes during a game and a season. For a few of the Dragons, that’s nothing compared to what they have already overcome to this point in their careers.