- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- Credit Drexel for the blueprint on how to challenge Duke.
The Dragons, of all teams, went right after Duke on Wednesday night from the opening tip of the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
Drexel had a lead of 11-8. The Dragons trailed by only one point, 41-40 at the half, and they were within a few possessions of tying the game in the final minutes before falling 78-68.
Memphis will get a shot at Duke Friday night in the NIT finals. The Tigers are playing attacking, pressing basketball and have more talent than Drexel.
So, how did the Dragons push Duke?
"They came right after us and took the first swing and to be honest we weren't ready to play," Duke senior Lee Melchionni said. "Every team is ready to play against us and, on this big stage, in our first road game, they knocked us back a bit."
Duke had squashed its previous opponents by an average of 33 points, the worst being a 53-point obliteration of Big East member Seton Hall.
"They attacked us and of all the teams we've played they've had the most confidence and that's saying something because Davidson, with its older group was confident coming into Cameron," Duke senior guard J.J. Redick said. "Playing on national TV is a big deal for Drexel and they came into the game thinking they could out-tough and out-physical us."
Redick hit it right. Drexel showed no fear. Drexel coach Bruiser Flint said as much earlier this week. Flint knew the Seton Hall result and he watched the Boston University and Davidson tapes and surmised that the Dragons, somehow picked sixth in the Colonial Athletic Association, had more talent and were "better" than the other teams that played Duke.
But that wouldn't be enough. To beat Duke, to hang with Duke this season, a team can't be timid.
"Before the game we said that you can't play with any fear," said Drexel junior guard Dominick Mejia, who was once in the ACC at N.C. State before transferring to Drexel. "A lot of teams have been crushed by them because they don't come out aggressive. We hustled, pressured the ball and rebounded."
Duke wasn't necessarily exposed in this game but there were some flaws that weren't evident in their previous games.
"We're not used to someone coming at us and forcing the pressure at the defensive end," Williams said.
"I thought Mason was outstanding in the first half," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "I'm not sure I prepared our guys as well for that type of initial thrust by them."
Mason, who was visibly upset after the game with his eyes still watery from crying, said he has never wanted to win a game as much as he did Wednesday night.
"You don't get many opportunities to play teams like Duke," Mason said.
"We were able to dribble drive and score," Flint said. "We lost our minds a few times and that's why they got a lead and a cushion because we took some ill-advised shots."
Drexel outrebounded Duke 40-30 and held the Blue Devils to 3 of 16 3-point shooting. Mejia (25 points) and Mason (15) went right at Redick, Sean Dockery and Greg Paulus. Redick had a steady game, finishing with 31 points, and Williams, who played with four fouls for most of the second half, still had 20. But the Blue Devils had to scrap for this win.
They lost DeMarcus Nelson in the first half to a hairline fracture of his right ankle, according to Duke. That forced freshman Martynas Pocius to play more and he didn't disappoint, going right at Drexel for seven points in 13 minutes off the bench. When Williams was out with foul problems, freshman Josh McRoberts (10 points and three blocks) and Paulus ran the team efficiently and allowed the Blue Devils to creep out to a more comfortable lead (nine points).
"I don't think I touched the ball for four straight possessions during that run," Redick said.
So, that helped the Blue Devils get better as they figured out that freshmen McRoberts, Paulus and Pocius can be counted on in tight situations. Pocius will likely get more time with Nelson out indefinitely.
Still, Drexel created the opening for others to follow: attack, attack, attack, off the dribble, finish and make perimeter shots. But just keep going after Duke from the opening tip to have a chance.
"Our drive was there and they allowed us to penetrate the lane and hit the open guys on the wing," Mejia said. "We had open shots and by penetrating we had a lot of post feeds and a lot of guys open on the wing. That's what happened throughout the game. We also got fast-break opportunities and we rebounded well."
Texas won't fear Duke on Dec. 10. But Indiana and everyone else in the ACC should take note of Drexel: go after the Blue Devils from the opening tip if you want a chance. They might not take the punch the way they did Thursday, but at least it gives you a chance.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.