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Drexel brings the madness into March with its first NCAA men’s tournament bid since 1996 | Mike Jensen

When you haven’t been there in 25 years, when your fans can recite the heartbreak and the near misses, yeah, this NCAA bid dropped from the sky.

Drexel coach Zach Spiker holds up the net as he celebrates with the team after a win over Elon in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game.
Drexel coach Zach Spiker holds up the net as he celebrates with the team after a win over Elon in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game.Read moreDaniel Lin / AP

Emotion slammed right into all those Dragons, soon as the clock hit nothing, Elon taken out. Tough guys battling for rebounds, suddenly gulping for air, tears running down more than a few faces. Drexel players turned the court at James Madison University into a mosh pit. A quarter century’s quest to return to March Madness, complete.

“Those weren’t tears, what are you talking about?” Dragons coach Zach Spiker joked Tuesday night when asked about his own immediate postgame emotions.

Spiker immediately got serious, noting the hug he shared with his star point guard, the most valuable player of the 2020-21 Colonial Athletic Association Tournament.

“Cam Wynter could not speak,” Spiker said. “He had tears flowing down his cheeks. He couldn’t speak.”

» READ MORE: How Drexel did it

The Dragons won this tournament, by the way, because they were the best team in this tournament.

It ain’t over, of course. Drexel heads to the NCAA Tournament next week. The Dragons’ seeding? Officially, who cares. The opponent? Bring on a big boy. Not that all the big boys will even be there. At its best, March is about this, a team from Market Street, in. Duke and Kentucky and some other blue bloods … not so fast.

No looking ahead, their coach, in his fifth year in charge, had told them.

“We talked a lot in the last 20 hours — just be present, be in the exact moment,” Spiker said, meaning the recovery period from Monday’s semifinal, through the walk-through, everything that had to be done. “Move with purpose.”

This didn’t quite come from nowhere. Drexel had gotten a bit better each year of the Spiker era, no winning seasons, but inching closer, and picked third in the CAA this season, with two first-team all-conference vets.

Let’s face it, though, when you haven’t been there in 25 years, when your fans can recite the heartbreak and the near misses, when the DAC had gotten sparse even before COVID-19 hit … when you’re seeded sixth going into the CAA Tournament, when it all goes down in this crazy pandemic year …

… Yeah, this NCAA bid dropped from the sky.

It always seemed like if this was going to happen, this season or last, or anytime in what should officially be the Cam Wynter-James Butler era, the Dragons supporting cast had to provide enough offensive threat to keep opponents from ganging up on Wynter and cutting off Drexel’s entire air supply.

» READ MORE: Steve Donahue on Penn's basketball season that wasn't.

If you watched the semifinals or the final, you saw it unfold. A Hungarian sharpshooter shooting sharply, barely inbounds. A freshman from Kansas almost looking like he was a senior at Kansas. A power forward getting them moving against Northeastern. A senior guard hitting big shots, like his 25-footer against Elon just ahead of the halftime buzzer.

A point guard from Long Island at the throttle who somehow went undetected by the rest of Division I even after he went to Florida for a postgraduate year. A rebounder who won every rebounding battle he’s seemingly ever faced. Two guys named Matey and Mate who provided massive bench minutes. (If you know which one is Okros and which is Juric, you’re a diehard.) A big man reserve whose father had played at Temple during glory years and in the NBA brought rebounds and hit free throws.

Elon had gotten to the final by hitting threes and hitting the offensive boards, neither of which happened against Drexel. The Dragons contested the threes when they allowed Elon to even shoot them, and then they all hit so many big free throws, securing the semis and then the title.

Practice mattered.

“We went 21 days without a game,” Spiker pointed out, saying they could see the improvement and the commitment, adding that they talked as a staff about how they had to ease up a bit, given all that was going on. There was an epic one-on-one contest, a dodgeball game that used all floors of the DAC, “the MVP of the CAA tournament is hiding on top of lockers.”

“Coach preached all year, the most disciplined team is going to win this,” Zach Walton said.

“We stuck by that statement,” Wynter said.

“I’m glad they were listening,” Spiker said. “I did say that a lot.”

And they were disciplined, he added. Not even any COVID-19 pauses of their own.

“It was a long season, COVID going on,” Walton said. “There were doubts about whether there was even going to be a season.”

He said this while holding a trophy draped in a net.

“This is a moment you dream of as a kid,” Walton said.

The quest is complete?

“We still get to keep playing,” their coach said right afterward. “Let’s do it.”