Drexel Dragons burst through Big 5 Classic with 57-55 win over No. 18 Villanova

The Wildcats fell to 0-3 in a series of Big 5 games that was designed to crown a city basketball champion.

Drexel's Justin Moore (11) reacts past Villanova's Jordan Longino after Drexel won the NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Philadelphia.

Drexel's Justin Moore (11) reacts past Villanova's Jordan Longino after Drexel won the NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Amari Williams blocked a shot that ignited a Drexel celebration — yellow and blue streamers were chucked on the court — decades in the making for a program long the outsider on the Philly hoops scene.

Let the old-timers spin tales about the faded, glory days of the Big 5.

The Dragons — with all of five total NCAA Tournament appearances — crashed the City Series this season and showed life in a reimagined pseudo-conference can be pretty glorious in the present, too.

Williams scored 12 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked No. 18 Villanova’s tying-attempt with 3 seconds left to help Drexel upset the Wildcats 57-55 on Saturday in the inaugural Big 5 Classic at the Wells Fargo Center.

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Turns out, the sixth team in the Big 5 can play some ball.

“We weren’t in awe,” Drexel coach Zach Spiker said, “at all.”

With good reason, perhaps.

Villanova (6-3) didn’t just lose, it fell to 0-3 in a series of Big 5 games that was designed to crown a city basketball champion.

The Big 5 Classic seemed designed simply to call the Wildcats champions in a prime-time game in front of a packed house inside an NBA arena where three of their national championship banners hang in the rafters.

Instead, after losses as double-digits favorites to Penn and Saint Joseph’s, the Dragons out of the Coastal Athletic Association never let the Wildcats hold a lead and followed their Big 5 brethren into the win column.

The Dragons (5-3) were 11½-point underdogs, per FanDuel SportsBook, headed into the fifth-place game.

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“I think this day is awesome for Philadelphia basketball,” Spiker said.

No doubt, Spiker would feel that way after Williams, a two-time CAA defensive player of the year, powered Drexel’s biggest regular-season win in his eight seasons on the bench.

Consider Williams’ run in the second half, his lone 3 stretched Drexel’s lead to 41-35, then a second-chance dunk kept the lead at two. He powered down his defender late for a bucket and a 56-53 lead. Williams made 1 of 2 free throws for a two-point lead, then swatted Justin Moore’s tying layup attempt that unleashed Drexel fans into a frenzy.

The reverberations of that block might have been felt all the way in Williams’ home of Nottingham, England.

“Basketball’s not really big in England,” Williams said. “We don’t have an atmosphere like this.”

The Big 5 was dying on the vine in Philly, so after years of traditionalists squawking — and attendance and interest waned and teams except for Villanova saw their programs sink into oblivion — the time was ripe for a change.

Drexel was added to the Big 5 this season as one of college basketball’s revered traditions underwent a serious retool in an attempt to stay relevant on the Philly sports scene.

Penn, La Salle, Temple, Saint Joseph’s and Villanova formed the Big 5 in the 1950s. The city schools dumped the traditional round-robin play and decided against holding the Classic at the famed Palestra, dubbed the Cathedral of College Basketball, though there was never any real consideration toward changing the Big 5 name.

Teams were split into three-team pods with games played at on-campus arenas, with the teams then seeded for the tripleheader that crowned a Big 5 champion. Much like the NBA’s In-Season Tournament juiced the significance of otherwise lackluster games, the Classic matchups provided some instant, well, classics. At least on the city scene.

Khalil Brantley hit a running 3-pointer at the horn in overtime to send La Salle to a 93-92 win over Penn in the third-place game. Saint Joseph’s knocked off Temple 74-65 to win the Big 5 Classic championship.

In the opener, Luke House scored 11 points for the Dragons, who beat a Top 25 team for the first time since 2010.

Eric Dixon led the Wildcats with 21 points. The Wildcats missed 13 of 17 3-pointers in the first half and missed 20 of 28 shots overall to give the Dragons all the opportunity they needed to pull off the stunner. House hit consecutive 3s that sent the Dragons into halftime with a 26-25 lead.

Drexel hit 8 of 16 3s overall; Villanova just 5 of 27.

“It’s a long season,” coach Kyle Neptune said. “If we had made that shot at the end, obviously we would have felt much better, but we would have still had the same things we needed to get better at.”

Under Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright, the Wildcats won a series-record 25 straight games from 2012 to 2018, and most of them weren’t close. Villanova was expected to goose attendance numbers — the program usually hovers around the 19,000 mark in attendance at the NBA arena — with a spot in the championship game. Instead? The Wildcats went 0-2 in their pod.

The Classic is at least a one-year experiment with schools hopeful everything from ticket sales — there was an announced total attendance of 15, 215 — to decent viewing numbers on Peacock, NBCUniversal’s premium streaming service, will earn the teams a return date next season.

Spiker is all for a sequel.

“I think since we’ve gotten in, there’s been an energy,” Spiker said.

History lesson

The Big 5 — the name was coined by Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer Herb Good — was officially formed in 1954, and the schools started round-robin play for “City Series” bragging rights in 1955. The first game was 68 years ago when Saint Joseph’s beat Villanova 83-70 on Dec. 14, 1955, in front of 2,636 fans at the Palestra.

Up next

Drexel plays Tuesday at Princeton.

Villanova plays Tuesday at Kansas State. The only other meeting in the series was a 51-34 Villanova win in 1940.

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