A Magical Season: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the 2021 Championship Season of Drexel Men’s and Women’s Basketball

Eric Zillmer and the CAA men's basketball championship trophy.

March Madness wrapped up this week, and with it the season that saw Drexel University’s men’s and women’s basketball teams win the CAA Championships and enter the NCAA Tournament. It was a triumphant ending to a historic season already made historic due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This also is the last season for Drexel Director of Athletics and Carl R. Pacifico Professor of Neuropsychology Eric Zillmer, PsyD, who will be stepping down in June after 23 years as athletics director.

To mark this momentous occasion, Zillmer wrote down his thoughts and reactions for an exclusive reveal into what happened on and off the courts this past spring.

Here’s what he had to say:

Within the business of college athletics, getting to the “Big Dance” in basketball is sacred territory. To do so with both the Drexel men’s and women’s teams, well … it is magical!

Especially during a pandemic, and a culture of social distancing and sheltering at home, cutting down the nets was a catalyst for our Drexel community to come together, to watch, cheer and eventually celebrate our collective victories.

I am absolutely ecstatic for our campus. All the credit goes to our student-athletes, the coaches and the support staff. Our student-athletes hail from all parts of the globe and from diverse backgrounds. They are smart, elegant, and (of course) athletic. Our coaches are wise and talented. They are great leaders with integrity as their primary operating principle. Our support infrastructure worked around-the-clock to make sure everyone was safe, managed the complex logistics associated with NCAA Division I basketball and ensured that we were on track in the (online) classroom as well as in the weight room. The regional and national media attention was incredible. And the support from our University community and the city was fantastic.

CAA Men’s Basketball Tournament — Harrisonburg, Virginia

The CAA basketball championship is the premier event of our conference. Ten teams from Boston to Charleston compete for the prize to represent their school and the conference in one of the largest sporting events globally: March Madness.

But first we have to stage the tourneys — not an easy task during a pandemic. The CAA men’s basketball tournament’s location had to be changed from a neutral site in Washington, D.C. to a CAA home site. In order for us to handle the COVID testing during a pandemic and its associated safety protocols, it was imperative that our league and schools be able to control all of its logistics. Kudos to James Madison University (JMU) for stepping up and making their brand-new, state-of-the-art Atlantic Union Bank Center available.

The new 8,500-seat Atlantic Union Bank Center on the campus of JMU, site of the men’s CAA Basketball Championships.

Safety was paramount this year and it was a privilege for me to serve as the chair of the CAA Athletic Directors and, together with our conference office and Commissioner Joey D’Antonio, assist in shaping the tournament. We met every week for many hours to get the logistics just right. We would hire a medical testing provider to have all teams undergo daily COVID testing. At Drexel we were already used to this because the NCAA and the City of Philadelphia evaluated indoor basketball as a high-risk sport, which required daily testing of all basketball student-athletes, as well as coaching and support staff. We called this Tier 1 and it meant that you were part of the “bubble.” One positive COVID test by anyone inside the bubble would pause the entire team for approximately 10 days. It would require discipline to manage.

The athletic directors also determined that there would be no spectators at the championships, but that each school would receive 100 tickets for parents and athletic department administrators. This would be a very different type of CAA tournament in an 8,500-seat arena that still had the new car smell when I first entered it. Regardless, the prize was a ticket to March Madness; nothing else mattered and everyone was psyched.

Seeding is important in a 10-team tournament and the Drexel men came in as the No. 6 seed. College basketball insiders know that the No. 6 seed is a favorable one, because the first game is against the No. 3 seed (College of Charleston), perhaps a manageable first contest. One major ingredient of March Madness is to survive and advance. If you lose, you pack your bags and go home — season over. Plus, for this year, there were two opponents Drexel had to beat: the opponent on the floor and COVID off the floor. Three wins within three days would get Drexel to March Madness. Was it possible? Well, every team assembled in Virginia felt that it was their destiny!

Sunday, March 7

CAA Men’s Quarterfinals vs. No. 3 The College of Charleston (CoC), 80–75

The first game of a tournament is often the most difficult one. Playoff jitters are real. Everything seems novel and foreign. On top of that, we lost to our quarterfinal opponent Charleston twice during the regular season. I was in good spirits though. I knew that the two away games vs. Charleston were very close. One could argue we should have won both of them. I was also confident that we had a good team. Coach Zach Spiker was making some strategic late-season changes to the line-up (e.g., starting freshman Xavier Bell) and the team was beginning to gel.

Six-foot, three-inch freshman shooting guard Xavier Bell.

Coach Spiker also made one major psychological shift, which, as a behavioral scientist, I thought was brilliant. Namely, he declared the JMU basketball arena as our home court. In part, because we only had two home games at the DAC during conference play and thus would be playing more games against CAA opponents at the Atlantic Union Bank Center that season than at the DAC. So, it was not only true, but it made everybody feel relaxed, like being at home. We all believed him. Home-court advantage!

The first game was a tough affair, but the Dragons showed grit and were hot-shooting: 55.4% from the floor, including 11-of-18 from three-point range. The stats showed how close it was, but Drexel was just a little more efficient in term of shooting ball and more determined overall; that made the difference.

2021 Men's #CAAHoops Tournament Gameday | Game 6

Monday, March 8

CAA Men’s Semifinal vs. No. 2 Northeastern (NU), 74­–67

Having “upset” the No. 3 seed CoC, there was little time to celebrate. Back to the Doubletree Hotel, eat, shower, rest. Next up and within 24 hours: the No. 2 seed, the Northeastern Huskies. On the line: a trip to the finals of the Hercules Tires CAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

Again, the Dragons were super-hot from the floor, shooting 52% from the field and making 8-of-16 from three-point range, outrebounding the Huskies, 38–26 and sinking 14-of-16 free throws. Drexel led 34–29 at the half and pushed the lead to 13 points less than three minutes into the second half on a jumper by Cam Wynter. NU fought back and cut the lead to 53–52 on a three-pointer with 6:21 remaining. Close!

Drexel’s James Butler and T.J. Bickerstaff on the court.

These are moments in sports when I can’t watch — watching my sister compete in the Olympics in figure skating, for example. During the NU game, I was sitting on pins and needles. Luckily the Dragons on the floor kept their cool. The hero of game was Mate Okros, who was born in Hungary, resides in England and standing at 6 feet 6 inches tall, his shot is hard to mess with. When Drexel needed it most, Okros responded with back-to-back three-pointers and a triple from James Butler to go up 6254 with 3:53 left. The Dragons sealed the victory by making a perfect 10-of-10 from the free throw line over the final 1:04.

Final score 7467. Another great coaching move to have Okros come off the bench as a spark-plug. Survive and advance.

2021 Men's #CAAHoops Gameday | Game 8

Tuesday, March 9

CAA Men’s Championships vs. #8 Elon, 63–56

For the first time since 2012, the Drexel men's basketball team would be playing in the Colonial Athletic Association title game. Drexel was facing Elon, who upset top-seeded JMU to fight for the right to play in the NCAA Tournament. Most importantly, the Dragons were playing their best ball of the season. A historic opportunity awaited them. All of the other eight teams had already left town. For Elon and Drexel, this was what they had been working for.

The team mood was relaxed and focused before the championship game. In the past five years, Coach Spiker had surrounded himself with a group of trusted assistant coaches: Paul Fortier, a gentle giant; Justin Jennings, a hard-working strategist; Mike Jordan, the former Penn hoops star; and Rob O’Driscoll, the DOBO, as we say in the basketball world (Director of Basketball Operations). It is a very likable and smart group. As I settle into my seat, I thought that there is not a collection of student-athletes and coaches who deserve this more than them. But sports can be cruel; it never provides you with what you deserve. You have to flat out earn it.

Would Drexel continue its hot shooting streak? Its rebounding prowess? Stay aggressive yet relaxed enough to seize this moment? I was measuring my heartrate as the two teams tipped off and it was 150 beats per minute sitting. Maybe it was the mask I was wearing. I was checking my phone — so many people were wishing the Dragons good luck. It was a very special day to be a Dragon.

The championship game was all that it promised. At least the part I saw, since I was pacing the hallways midway through the game. It was a nail-biter. A security guard came over and told me I had entered a restricted area of the arena.

“You can’t watch, right? Which one is your son?”

“All of them,” I answered.

Drexel showed its depth once again as Mate Okros hit 4-of-5 from three-point range and scored a team-high 14 points off the bench while Xavier Bell contributed 11 points.

The men's basketball team celebrating their championship win.

The last few minutes were amazing as Drexel sealed the win and punched its ticket to March Madness. The Drexel bench exploded at the buzzer. My phone and texts were pinging like popcorn in the microwave. I made two video calls to the two people who I felt made this all possible and who had trust in our program. I called Drexel University President John Fry on FaceTime, and he had been watching in Philly and was so proud of the team. And then my direct report, Senior Vice President for Student Success Subir Sahu, who was ecstatic.  I went down on the floor (socially distanced, of course) to take in the vibe and take pictures. I enjoyed every moment of the time-honored tradition of cutting down the nets, the trophy presentation and the announcement of the all-tournament team (which included Drexel’s Zach Walton, James Butler and, as the Most Outstanding Player, Camren Wynter). I looked over to Coach Spiker — he was crying and being attended to by our student-manager. College basketball, you got love it.

I caught the eye of our Deputy Athletic Director Nick Gannon as we screamed out simultaneously, “WE DID IT!” Then I just sat back and enjoyed watching the parents, the families and the players. I was the last person to leave the Center. A security guard came over and asked how much longer it would be as I noticed that everyone is waiting to go home. I told him one minute, as I took it all in one last time and headed for the exit with a youthful spring in my step.

2021 Men's #CAAHoops Championship Gameday | Drexel vs Elon

Women’s CAA Tournament — Elon, North Carolina

To put the women’s basketball tournament into perspective, one has to go back to the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Our women’s basketball team, the 2019–20 regular-season champion, was taking the court vs. the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) in the quarterfinals at Elon University. Tip-off was noon. I was on a conference call, however, with the CAA athletic directors and the CAA staff. The situation looked ominous; we were just beginning to understand that COVID was a very contagious respiratory virus. We were debating whether we should hold the WBB CAA Championship with all 10 teams already having assembled in North Carolina and Drexel’s Player-of-the-Year Bailey Greenberg and her team warming up. Then, within minutes, the Big East and the A-10 conferences announced the cancellation of their tourneys. That sealed it. No CAA hoops. A phone call to Elon and the Drexel women were asked to step off the court. The tournament was cancelled. If you are an athlete, there is nothing worse than not competing. An absolute low point, even though the right decision had been made.

Hannah Nihill.

Thursday, March 11

CAA Women’s Quarterfinals vs. No. 6 Elon, 65–59

Fast-forward to March 2021, Drexel’s quarterfinal game is against the Elon Phoenix on their home court in the beautiful new Schar Center. Drexel came into the tournament as the No. 3 seed and defeated sixth-seeded Elon. Hannah Nihill, senior point guard and the emotional leader of the team, had a game-high 24 points, adding five assists and four steals. She not only inspires her teammates to do better, but she inspires all of us with her intensity and her never-give-up attitude!

2021 Women's #CAAHoops Tournament Gameday | Game 5 Drexel vs Elon

Friday, March 12

CAA Women’s Semifinals vs. No. 2 James Madison University (JMU), 79–76 OT

Coach Mallon and the team celebrating in the Drexel locker room after the JMU win. Drexel’s athletic trainer Kerri DiPietro is validating the win by placing the Dragon logo in the CAA finals!

JMU is a powerhouse in women’s basketball, but Drexel has had its own success over the years. First-year head coach Amy Mallon had been an assistant coach for the Dragons for the past 17 years. During that time, the Dragons won a CAA title and a WNIT championship. I have known Amy for all of those years and, in fact, I hired her. You don’t have to worry about Amy. I know she will do everything possible tactically to win the game. Amy is a former basketball star herself, having won a CAA championship with Richmond. Could she get a team of college students to believe in upsetting the No. 2 seed? Yes, but it was so close!

The game was a dandy. The first quarter it was tied at 20, but then JMU pulled away and led by 10 at half. In the third quarter, the Dragons exploded behind shooting guard Keishana Washington to send the game into overtime tied at 65. “Oh boy, here we go again, another stressful day at the office,” I was thinking.

After seeing its late lead slip away, the Dragons bounced back quickly in the extra session for its 79–76 victory. The Dragons were in the final!

2021 Women's #CAAHoops Tournament Gameday | Game 7 JMU vs Drexel

Saturday, March 13

CAA Women’s Championships vs. No. 1 University of Delaware (UD), 63–52

Awaiting the Dragons in the finals were the regular season champions of the CAA, the top-seeded University of Delaware Blue Hens (21-3). In athletics, you want to play the best, in part because you want to see for yourself how you hold up. It is the ethos of sports. But, UD is bigger and they have the CAA 2021 Player-of-the-Year. “I know,” I would tell our fans, “but we are Dragons. You’ve got to believe!” Really, no one can count out the Dragons, even though we lost both regular season contests to UD by a total margin of 19 points.

It is difficult to articulate the 2021 CAA Women’s Basketball Championships game in which Drexel defeated top-seeded Delaware. I don’t know how Amy and her coaching staff kept their cool. The Dragons came out strong and tied the game after the first quarter at 17. It was clear this would be no “cake-walk” for the Blue Hens. Again, Keishana shot the lights out with 30 points. Her shots don’t rattle in — they are all net. I am just floored watching this myself and feeling amazingly proud about these women fighting as a team.

The stats never lie. We were outrebounded, 44-25, and we took 10 less shots than Delaware. But we shot over 50% from the field and our defense, which has been at one point during the season the nation’s best, held UD to less than 30%. And then we won!

Team erupts, bench goes crazy, we cut down the nets. Just like with the men’s team. Been there, done that. Groundhog Day. How is this even possible? You would have to go back to 1996 to find the last time a Philly team (St. Joseph’s University) would have both their women’s and men’s team go to the NCAAs. Phone calls, texts, madness.

2021 Women's #CAAHoops Championship Highlights | Drexel vs Delaware

2021 March Madness

After years of heartbreak and close calls, the Drexel men’s and women's basketball teams completed their remarkable run through the CAAs. There is no better feeling in all of college basketball than to await the nationally televised NCAA tournament selection specials, knowing that your teams are in it.

Daily News cover story of the women’s team returning to Drexel.

Thus, the Dragons eagerly awaited the Selection Sunday (men on CBS) and Selection Monday (women on ESPN) specials on March 14 and 15, respectively, when the brackets for the 2021 NCAA Tournaments were announced. We all congregated outside the DAC with TV monitors to celebrate, with the Drexel student body, this American-made right-of-passage. The women were selected to be No. 14 seed and play No. 3 Georgia, and the men received a No. 16 seed and faced No. 1 Illinois. The women’s tournament was held in San Antonio, Texas, and the men’s in Indianapolis, Indiana. A goosebump moment was when the men’s bracket was being announced and coincidentally the women’s team bus pulled in from Elon, with the team and the trophy, to wild cheers from the student population. It was simply great and made for a great cover photo for the Philadelphia Daily News

Drexel the Philadelphia basketball powerhouse? Not a day would go by without mention of Drexel athletics in the media. One night the city lit up in blue and gold in support of the Drexel Dragons. Everything just looked wonderful around town. [Editor’s note: you can see for yourself in this DrexelNow photo recap.]

Dragons Are Dancing: City-Wide Celebration in Lights News
Media coverage credited to CBS-3 Philadelphia of Drexel's lighting up the city to support our Men's and Women's Basket Ball Championships and entry in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. #DragonsAreDancing #AmbitionCantWait #Drexel

March Madness is a big-time sporting event. In fact, the NCAA sent the Drexel teams chartered airplanes to travel privately to the tournament site. Once the teams arrived, they were placed in a unique NCAA bubble. Practice floors were placed in convention centers to allow for private practices.

The men’s team enjoying a socially distant and NCAA-approved soccer intermezzo in a local ballpark in Indianapolis.

Daily COVID testing continued and a positive result before the tournament meant a different team could be slotted for the bracket. Once the tournament began, a positive test meant departure. This happened to the team from Virginia Commonwealth University; its first-round game was declared a no-contest due to the Rams having multiple positive COVID-19 tests within their program. For the men and women’s teams, every COVID testing session in the morning could have been a season-ending event. How does one manage that? Well, the Dragons relied on practicing COVID safe behaviors, were masked-up in common areas and kept away from other people outside their bubble.

The men were up first and, with the women’s team cheering them on in a conference room in Texas, faced the top-seeded Illini. Illinois advanced past Drexel in first round of NCAA tournament 78–49. The women’s upset bid vs. Georgia in the NCAA first round also fell short, 67–53, even though the teams were tied at 25 at half.

The women’s team had their own private plane to travel to San Antonio, courtesy of the NCAA.

And so an unforgettable season came to a close for both the men’s and women’s Drexel University basketball teams. The Dragons finally ran out of steam, but not before re-imagining what Drexel athletics could look like moving forward and causing celebration and a unity among Dragons near and far.

Postscript: A big thank you to the Drexel Medical Community

It takes a village to qualify for March Madness, and the medical community in and around Drexel was essential in this effort. The Drexel Athletics Department benefited from the institution having the College of Medicine, the Dornsife School of Public Health and the College of Nursing and Health Professions. The medical personnel were an all-star team and the behind-the-scenes MVPs of March Madness. It is appropriate to thank them by name: Our athletics’ trainers Michael Westerfer (men) and Kerri DiPietro (women); our team physician Dr. Alicia Tucker; and Drexel’s Dr. Janet Cruz, medical director of Drexel Student Health, who worked tirelessly around the clock to provide “medical bumper guards” around the team. A special thank you to Dr. Marla Gold, who oversees Drexel’s Return Oversight Committee and assisted in getting our basketball plans approved with the City. Dr. Gold made us buy into our COVID strategy and was essential in creating a safe culture. All told, the teams went almost 4.5 months with daily testing and without a positive test. Impressive! In response to the heroic efforts by all basketball schools’ medical personnel in the city, the six Philly athletics directors decided to thank them publicly by creating a “thank you” message that will run on digital billboards on I-95, I-76 and the PA Turnpike from May 3 through May 30.  

Billboard thanking City 6 medical personnel.

In mid-February of 2021, I announced that I would step down from my role as director of athletics at the end of the academic year, after more than two decades of leadership in the position. This was certainly an amazing way to be sent off. As great as this March was though, I fully believe the Dragons have all of the parts in place to even do better next year. But for right now, we should all enjoy the 2021 Miracle of 34th street.