By John Bohnenkamp
The reminder, Drake coach Darian DeVries said, was to tell his players that they have been here before.
Here, of course, wasn’t the NCAA tournament — the Bulldogs hadn’t been in the bracket since 2008.
No, it was more because Thursday’s First Four game against Wichita State at Purdue’s Mackey Arena felt like a lot of Drake games this season.
The Bulldogs’ 53-52 win was a scramble that resembled their season.
“Perseverance,” guard Joseph Yesufu said when asked how Drake could rally from double-digit deficits in both halves. “We’ve been doing that all year.”
The Bulldogs (26-4) won their first 13 games before a three-week pause for COVID-19, came back to win five more consecutive games before losing their two top players in Roman Penn and ShanQuan Hemphill, then had to make a run to the Missouri Valley Conference championship game to strengthen their postseason resumé and be one of the last teams selected for the tournament. They played 14 games in the last 33 days of the season.
“Our whole thing, the biggest word, is perseverance,” said Yesufu, who had a game-high 21 points.
“These guys have really had to battle, fight through adversity, to play their way into the tournament,” DeVries said. “So this opportunity isn’t taken lightly by any of us. All year, they’ve battled back from deficits. Today was no different.
Drake is making just the fifth NCAA tournament appearance in the program’s history. This win was the Bulldogs’ first in tournament play in exactly 50 years — the 1971 team defeated Notre Dame, 79-72, on March 18.
“It’s been a long time, and our guys knew that,” DeVries said. “Getting the opportunity to be here, first of all, was something that these kids dream about. As coaches, we dream about it. To get a win for our program, something that hasn’t happened in 50 years, it’s really exciting. These guys have fought through so much. For them to be the ones to get us (a win), I think, is really deserving.”
Drake’s tournament history, though, still led to some held breaths in the final seconds. Yesufu missed the front end of a one-and-bonus with five seconds left. Wichita State’s Alterique Gilbert’s 3-pointer as time expired hit off the front of the rim.
The Bulldogs’ last tournament appearance ended when Western Kentucky’s Ty Rogers made a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in a 101-99 overtime win.
This time had a different feeling.
“Excitement,” Yesufu said.
Yesufu has stepped up in Penn’s absence. He came in averaging 23.7 points in Drake’s last six games, and provided the biggest lift when the Bulldogs were snoozing.
Drake scored just 11 points in the first 15:13 of the game — the Bulldogs were just 8-of-26 shooting in the first half. But they closed the half with 10 consecutive points, the last five from Yesufu, including a roaring dunk with 1:45 left in the half that was a loud wake-up call.
Yesufu’s confidence has been growing, and it’s at a peak at the right time.
“I started off the season, I was kind of unsure of myself,” Yesufu said. “But as the season started going, as I was getting more college games under my belt, I started getting more confident.”
Yesufu had 14 points in the second half as Drake was forced to rally again after falling down 37-25 with 11:24 to go.
“Our guys really had to show resiliency to hang with it, in both halves,” DeVries said. “We got down double digits, and didn’t have anything going offensively, but they continued to stay with it, and believe in one another, to be able to pull out a very hard-fought game.”
Drake got 11 points from Tremell Murphy, the only other Bulldog in double figures. But the Bulldogs were especially effective on defense, holding Wichita State leading scorer Tyson Etienne, who was averaging 17 points, to just one.
“It was a collective effort,” Yesufu said.
“They did a great job on Tyson, just basically like a box-and-one, not allowing him to get the ball,” Wichita State coach Isaac Brown said. “But I give them all the credit. They played well.”
“It wasn’t the prettiest game in the world,” DeVries said.
Perseverance, though, has a good look for the Bulldogs.
“We’re super excited,” DeVries said. “I mean, it’s something we haven’t done here in our program in a long, long time. So we’re thankful to be moving on. Grateful for the opportunity and can’t wait to get back out there.”
Photo: Drake’s Joseph Yesufu celebrates after the 53-52 win over Wichita State. (Getty Images/NCAA)