Amy Mallon is a talker. The head coach of the Drexel women’s basketball program is constantly encouraging her players on the court, pulling them aside for one-on-one chats and maintaining a generous open-door policy between games and practices.
But after the Dragons stunned Colonial Athletic Association regular-season champion Delaware for the conference’s tournament crown and automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, Mallon was at a loss for words during a congratulatory phone call with Denise Dillon, her predecessor who now leads Villanova.
“She was so excited for us and the team and the players because she was involved with them, and I didn’t say anything,” Mallon said Wednesday with a laugh. “She said, ‘This is the first time you’ve been speechless.’ I didn’t even know what to say. I was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ That’s pretty much how I ended it with her.”
The first rookie coach to win a CAA title since East Carolina’s Emily Manwaring in 1985, Mallon and the Dragons (14-8) earned the No. 14 seed and will meet No. 3 seed Georgia (20-6) in an Alamo Region first-round game Monday at noon at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
It would seem that Mallon has already stepped out of the long shadow cast by Dillon, who left the program after 17 seasons as its winningest coach with 329 victories. But junior shooting guard Keishana Washington said Mallon did not indicate she coached under that burden.
“We can never tell if she was stressed or feeling pressured or anything,” Washington said. “She just came in every day with the mindset that we’re going to do whatever we have to do to win the game. So it wasn’t so much looking at what Denise did, but focusing on what she can do for the team to make us successful.”
Since 2011-12, Drexel had winning overall and CAA records every year and had never finished lower than fourth in the conference. With that in mind, Mallon, who agreed to coach the team March 27, said she did not feel the need to retool what Dillon had done.
But with 5-foot-11 forward and 2019-20 CAA Player of the Year Bailey Greenberg and 6-2 forward Niki Metzel electing not to return, Mallon shifted the offense’s focus from a post-oriented unit to one that emphasized transition and perimeter play. She also gave more responsibility to Washington and senior point guard Hannah Nihill to make calls on the floor and run the offense.
“I wanted them to think, ‘Hey, this is what I can do. This is what the team can do,’ instead of me having to tell them,” Mallon said. “I knew we’d be successful with this group of students if Key and Hannah took over ownership of things that were happening on the floor. It wasn’t my decision. It was what I asked them to do, and once they took the ownership, I knew we were going to be in great shape because now the leaders were taking responsibility and accountability, and it allows for the whole team to follow them. So I felt that took us to another level.”
The results were career seasons from Nihill (16.0 points, 3.8 rebounds and assists and 2.9 steals per game) and Washington (15.0 points and 3.5 rebounds). Nihill became the first Dragons player to be named the CAA Defensive Player of the Year and also earned a spot on the league’s first team, and Washington was selected as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after scoring 30 points in victories over James Madison in the semifinals and then Delaware.
“At first, I think it was a big adjustment to kind of get used to because we did lose more than 80% of our offense last year,” Nihill said. “I feel like just with me being the point guard, I was always told to get the ball to Bailey or get the ball into Niki. Now it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to start running stuff for me and for Key, that we’re going to be the ones to run the offense and distribute.’ That was a little bit of an adjustment, but I think that Amy made us feel really comfortable stepping up into that role.”
Washington said she and Nihill embraced the added accountability of directing the offense from the floor.
“I appreciated that because we’re the ones on the floor and we can see everything and we know how teams are defending us like who’s chasing and who’s going under the screens,” she said. “We’re able to make those calls. We can walk up to Amy and say, ‘Let’s run this,’ and she says, ‘All right, go ahead and run it.’ And whatever we call, the team follows. So I think in that sense, it was kind of easier getting our teammates on board with what was going on because once Hannah and myself are on the same page and the team is following us, too, then the whole team can be on the same page.”
Mallon is famous among her players and staff for seeking ways to motivate them. She found a quote on the internet saying, “The question isn’t, ‘Who is going to let us, but who is going to stop us,’” and circulated the quote. Tied to that saying, she purchased a traffic light and had it shipped overnight so that it could be installed in the team’s locker room.
Mallon did not need much creativity to spark the players for the CAA title game against the Blue Hens. When Drexel was swept in a two-game series last month, several Delaware players pantomimed using brooms on the Dragons’ home court. And when the Blue Hens took a nine-point lead in the second quarter of the tournament final, Mallon spotted Delaware players celebrating as if the championship was theirs for the taking.
“That was all the motivation this group needed to find a way to beat them,” Mallon said. “You always hope you can find a crack in a team, and we needed something, and I think that motivated our girls to really take it all in the end.”
Nihill and Washington said Mallon’s background as a former Big 5 Player of the Year as a senior at Saint Joseph’s has made it easier for players to relate to her.
“I know that there’s a personal and professional line when it comes to this kind of stuff, and I know that Amy’s my coach, but I also consider her my friend,” Nihill said. “I think she just does a great job of managing everything like all of the relationships with every single person on the team — whether you play or you don’t. She’s very personable with everyone on our team.”
Mallon said she has appreciated the players’ fortitude this winter. She said they never complained about daily testing for the coronavirus for the past four months, and they pulled together after losing starting junior guard Maura Hendrixson, who led the nation in assist/turnover ratio and was the team’s best defender, to a torn ACL in the second quarter of a game against James Madison on Feb. 27.
Upending Georgia, who lost to No. 1 seed South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference tournament final, figures to be a tall task. But Mallon said her belief in her players is unwavering.
“We know we’re the underdogs going into this tournament obviously with our seeding and who we’re about to face in Georgia. They’re a team that day in and day out is one of the top teams in their league,” she said. “But I know with this team, the fight is there, and in the end, we’re going to show up and we’re going to do whatever it takes to try to win a game. Win or lose, in the end, I know we’re going to be successful just because I know we did it all. I wouldn’t be surprised if we win a game, but we’re going to approach it simple. We’re going to have the same practice, we’re going to say the same things and see where it goes.”