PHILADELPHIA — Malaya Johnson left the postgame press conference singing and dancing. Elon’s headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
Johnson scored 14 points to lead third-seed Elon to a 57-45 win over top-seeded Drexel on Saturday in the Colonial Athletic Association title game. The senior center hopes that the Phoenix last longer in the NCAAs this time.
“Just kind of going out and playing the game like it’s your last,” said Johnson of what she learned after last season’s 13-point loss to West Virginia in the opening round of the NCAAs. “Giving it your all, playing with all your effort. We learned a lot from our experience last year.”
The Phoenix (25-7) have momentum heading into the NCAAs with 13 straight wins and a victory on an opposing team’s homecourt to clinch the CAA title.
“We have to come in with the mindset that we’re not there to participate, we’re there to win,” Elon coach Charlotte Smith said. “We have the tools and pieces. … Go in with the mindset that anything can happen and be there for the long haul.”
The Phoenix got off to a hot start, hitting their first six shots. They led 12-6 and extended that advantage to as many as 11 in the first half as the Dragons went cold from the field. Drexel missed 17 of its next 18 shots before Aubree Brown banked in a 3-pointer from the top of the key that got the Dragons within eight. The Phoenix led 27-17 at the half.
The Dragons (26-7), who made shot just 7-for-33 in the first half from the field, didn’t hit their first basket of the third quarter until 5:26 remained. The 3-pointer by Hannah Nihill got them within 36-22.
Elon’s lead ballooned to 49-31 to start the fourth quarter before the Dragons attempted a furious rally, scoring 14 of the first 16 points in the period to get within 51-45 with 2:15 left. They had a couple chances to cut the deficit to one possession, but couldn’t hit a few open looks from the 3-point line.
“I was pleased with the two looks we got in a two possession game, they didn’t fall,” Drexel coach Denise Dillon said. “We took 18 more shots than they did and they shot lights out and we did not.”
Meme Gardner hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 1:18 left and threw her arms up to the Phoenix faithful, who made the trip from North Carolina. That shot ended the Dragons comeback bid and started the Phoenix’s celebration.
“We knew we had to keep the composure, slowing the game down,” said Elon’s Shay Burnett, who scored 13 points and was honored as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Nihill scored 14 points to lead Drexel.
This was the first loss at home for Drexel all season. The Dragons had won their first 15 games on campus and were trying to win their first conference title since 2009 — the only other time they were the one seed.
Drexel was missing senior captain Sara Woods, who injured her knee in the semifinal win over Delaware. She was sporting a big knee brace on her right knee and walking with a limp.
Drexel finished 15 for 59 from the field, including 5 for 28 from the 3-point line.
The CAA decided to move to campus sites for its tournament last year with James Madison hosting. Next year Delaware will be the host school. Moving back to campus sites helped boost attendance for the title game. There were 2,441 fans at the game Saturday, just short of capacity. Last season there were 3,000 at the championship game. The final year at a neutral site only drew 1,207.
Elon: Awaits NCAA Tournament seeding.
Drexel: Awaits WNIT bid for the fourth straight year. The Dragons were champions of the WNIT in 2013.