Story by Tad Unruh
Photo by Joel Venzke
It’s nearly March, and the brackets are already looking to bust. As part of Ramada Worldwide’s famous BracketBuster basketball weekend, the Drake Bulldogs and Horizon League foe Green Bay Phoenix faced off in a charged Knapp Center environment. After a back-and-forth first half the Bulldogs took over in the second half and handily dispatched the Phoenix 71-54. The underlying story of the game was senior leader Jordan Clarke, who did not suit up for the game due to knee problems.
Drake head coach Mark Phelps is extremely circumspect about his senior’s injury and extensive play.
“Jordan is in full-maintenance mode right now, just like he has been all year long,” Phelps said. “He came to me last night and said the way it was feeling, he didn’t think he was going to be able to go (Saturday night).”
The first half began as a tale of two benches. An early aggressive tempo by both teams led to nearly as many fast baskets as turnovers. Green Bay’s Keifer Sykes then ignited a run with three straight 3-point possessions to put the Phoenix ahead 17-7.
Then, Drake began to claw its way back into the game. A three by senior Ben Simons, an acrobatic lane driving layup by freshman Kori Babineaux and a 3-pointer by redshirt sophomore Jeremy Jeffers brought the Bulldogs within one, but they could not get over the hump.
Both teams’ benches contributed big baskets. Brennan Cougill started the Green Bay run with a crowd-hushing 3-pointer and added another six points to put them up early. Drake had a bench answer of its own with Babineaux, who on concurrent possessions turned Phoenix turnovers into baskets and got the crowd barking back behind the Bulldogs.
“Kori has played the way we have seen him play in practice, he’s a really talented athletic strong explosive guard,” Phelps said. “He had some finishes especially in the first half, that’s unique to our guard corps.”
The rest of the half turned into a three-point slugfest, Drake led by Simons with 11 first half points, who on three of the teams’ last four possessions netted a trey ball. The teams traded baskets until the last Bulldog possession, when Simons beat the shot clock to put Drake up two at the break. Drake was extremely hot before the break shooting 51 percent from the field and 45 percent from behind the arc. A big part of that run was fifth-year senior Chris Hines, who made four three-point baskets in the game.
“I got some open shots, some good looks,” Hines said. “Seth (VanDeest) definitely made it easier for me with his offensive rebounding and hitting me in position to shoot.”
The Bulldog’s torrid shooting continued through the second half. Simons started the second half the same way he ended it, with a momentum-setting trey that would soon turn into a 11-2 run.
Initial hot shooting cooled off but at the 10-minute mark set in motion another 3-pointer-riddled run for Drake. The 10-0 run put Drake up 64-46 and the Phoenix in the rearview mirror. The barrage of three-point baskets and staunch defense forced multiple Green Bay turnovers, off of which the Bulldogs would convert 20 points. Senior Seth VanDeest anchoring the middle scored many of those second-half points with Clarke on the bench.
“Coach (Phelps) was telling us we definitely need to crash the boards, and once I got confident with myself, and the rest of the team started picking up the slack, where (Clarke) brings a lot of energy on both ends,” VanDeest said.
The stat lines were extremely Bulldog-heavy. Three starters put up double figures for Drake. Simons led the way with 16 points and seven rebounds on 6-10 shooting from the field and 4-6 from three-point range. VanDeest put up a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, shooting 5-11 from the floor. Hines shot 4-6 from three and put up 14. Kori Babineaux poured in 10, pulled down seven rebounds in just 13 minutes at the sixth man spot.
Final team stats were as follows: Drake shot 48.1 percent from the field to Green Bay’s 33.9 percent. Drake shot 42.9 percent from the three-point arc to Green Bay’s 20 percent. The Bulldogs out-rebounded and out-assisted the Phoenix across the board.
Green Bay only had two players in double figures, Sykes and Cougill, with 12 points apiece. As Green Bay’s second-leading scorer on the season, Alec Brown was held to four points.
The Bulldogs take this non-conference win into their upcoming game at Indiana State this Wednesday at 6:05 p.m.