Losing by five to a team that brought a 7-2 record into the basketball game isn't horrible. But when Drexel's players think about last night's loss to Niagara, they will squirm over how close they were to winning.

Niagara never led by more than five points in its 67-62 nonconference victory at the Daskalakis Athletic Center. Trailing by five with a little more than 2 minutes remaining, the Dragons (2-4) closed to within one point with 1:05 left. Freshman Samme Givens, starting for the first time, scored off a rebound, then senior Scott Rodgers converted two free throws to trim Niagara's lead to 63-62.

After a missed layup and follow-up by Niagara, Drexel's Evan Neisler (career highs of 15 points, 13 rebounds) grabbed the loose ball, but was whistled for traveling. Tyrone Lewis, Niagara's leading scorer from Levittown's Harry S Truman High, sank two free throws with 26.8 seconds on the clock.

After Rodgers missed a three-pointer, Neisler retrieved the rebound, but couldn't score. Niagara's Benson Egemonye, a 6-10 senior, added two more free throws for the final margin.

Drexel must depend on defense, because it entered the game last in scoring among the Colonial Athletic Association's 12 teams, at 57.8 points. "Fear the fire" is a popular T-shirt at the DAC. If the Dragons continue shooting as they have, few rivals will be reaching for their fire-retardant suits.

Against Niagara, Drexel shot 35.9 percent from the field and only 13.3 percent on threes.

"We've lost every game like that except one," Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said. "We can't make a shot. Our shots aren't bad. That's more frustrating to me than anything.

"Our defense has been great, and we're doing an unbelievable job rebounding [Drexel won decisively on the glass, 52-35]. But at some point, [his players] have to say, 'I'm ready to make a play.'

"We're playing teams that are pretty good. Everybody told [us] that we're going to stink. If you stink and you shoot 35 percent, you're supposed to be getting crushed."

The game was expected to be a battle of strong-willed defensive teams. Niagara was averaging 10 steals. The teams were all over each other like gravy on a holiday turkey. Driving to the hoop was not for the faint-hearted.

"It was what you expect when you play a Drexel team," said Niagara coach Joe Mihalich, a former La Salle player and assistant coach. "They are so scrappy, so physical, so tough. They're suffering through some bad luck right now. I said to Bru before the game that I've never seen a team have more shots that should go in not go in.

"I thought, for 30 minutes, Drexel was clearly the toughest team on the floor. The last 10 minutes, we found a way to be the toughest team."

Lewis, a 5-11 junior guard, led the Purple Eagles with 22 points, five points higher than his pregame average. Egemonye added 19 (9-for-12 on free throws), and Villanova transfer Bilal Benn had 16.

Rodgers led Drexel with a season-high 19 points. The 6-5 Givens, like Neisler, set a career-high in rebounds, with 12, and also contributed eight points.

Neisler, a 6-8 junior, has settled in after a slow start. He's had double figures in rebounding three games in a row.

"He's doing what we're asking him to do," Flint said. "We want him to be even more aggressive."

The Dragons play the first of six consecutive road games tomorrow at Bucknell. On Monday, they play at No. 23-ranked Memphis. *

Send e-mail to fleiscb@phillynews.com.