March 18, 2024 

Baker’s vision becomes a reality as Drexel claims CAA championship

Dragons won four games in four days to earn a trip to the NCAA Tournament

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With tears of happiness streaming down her face and as her teammates joyfully embraced at center court, Drexel guard Amaris Baker crumpled to the honey-colored floor nearby after being tackled by her jubilant teammate Chloe Hodges.

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For Baker, who remained on the floor for a few extra seconds while her happy Drexel teammates celebrated, it was in an emotional mixture of relief, rest and reality wrapped in a moment that she envisioned from the time she scribbled the words “March Madness” into her journal. 

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Baker’s thoughts went back to when she woke her father up at 5:30 a.m. to shoot at the Murphy Recreation Center in an empty gym. The sweat-soaked South Philadelphia native remembered entering the transfer portal after a year at Kennesaw State in 2022 and having to take the scenic route through Harcum Junior College before landing at Drexel at the start of this season. 

Eventually, Baker was pulled to her feet by Hodges and forward Jasmine Valentine. Before joining her euphoric teammates, Baker, eyes still glistening with moisture, and Valentine shared a long hug.

Baker never doubted that she would be holding a championship trophy, posing for celebratory snapshots with her teammates and coaches, and being named the Coastal Athletic Association (CAA) Tournament Most Outstanding Player after leading the Drexel women’s basketball program to a pulsating 68-60 victory over Stony Brook.

The Dragons (19-14) led wire-to-wire, winning their second CAA Championship in the past four seasons and second under head coach Amy Mallon. The Dragons are the second straight seventh seed to win four games in four days to capture the CAA Tournament. Drexel is in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in program history. In addition, the Dragons have now reached postseason play in either the NCAA Tournament or WNIT in nine consecutive seasons — the longest active streak in the CAA.

Baker finished with a game-high 19 points to cap her sterling tournament, averaging 19.7 points per game. She led the Dragons in scoring in each CAA Tournament contest. 

Brooke Mullin added 16 points in the title game and joined Baker on the All-Tournament team, and Erin Sweeney provided a lift off the bench with a career-high 16 points. Mullin scored 13 points in the first half to help Drexel lead 36-26 at halftime. Sweeney scored nine points in the third quarter, which Baker finished with a flourish when she swished a 3-pointer from the corner as the buzzer sounded.

Hodges, who had the winning basket in the semifinals against Towson, finished with seven rebounds and six assists for Drexel. Baker and Mullin combined for eight of Drexel’s 11 3-pointers, which tied a program record for most made in a CAA Tournament game. Drexel made 11 3-pointers in a 2013 quarterfinal contest against William & Mary.

Drexel led wire-to-wire, winning their second CAA Championship in the past four seasons and second under head coach Amy Mallon. In addition, Drexel became the second straight No. 7 seed to win the CAA championship. (Photo credit: CAA)

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“All that work and those early mornings paid off,” Baker said to The Next. “I am super grateful and blessed. I learned that it will eventually happen if it doesn’t happen instantly, so have that patience. I am just so happy right now. Knowing we can do anything we put our minds to as a team and manifesting that while speaking that into existence because we all can.”

One of Baker’s coaches when she was in fourth grade was Natasha Cloud. Baker and Cloud are graduates of Cardinal O’Hara High School outside of Philadelphia. They also now share another permanent connection: They both won championships on the same Entertainment & Sports Arena floor. This fact was not lost on Baker, who sported a smile as wide as the Potomac River as she climbed the ladder to cut the nets.

“Having the special connection to Natasha and being on the same court where she played most of her career is awesome,” said Baker, who also named Maya Moore as a huge influence on her. “She told me you’re the truth and to have the utmost confidence in whatever I wanted to do on the court. She also told me I could hoop, which always meant so much. She’s always there for me whenever I need to call her and talk.”

Those words helped Baker during her year at Harcum Junior College, where she shined as a scoring machine during the 2022-23 campaign. Baker led NJCAA Division II in points per game (27.0) and scored 919 points. In addition to leading Harcum to a 30-win season, Baker had four games with at least 40 or more points, including 45 in one contest. 

She made the most of her opportunity to play basketball regardless of where it was, which allowed her to remain home — a big blessing for her family, who are a constant source of strength. Baker retreated to the main concourse clutching her Most Outstanding Player award to speak with her family after all the happy chaos subsided. This followed another special moment — Baker receiving the Most Outstanding trophy from commissioner Joe D’Antonio and Drexel’s all-time leading scorer Keishana Washington.

“My journey from Division I to junior college was hard because I didn’t have the same resources, but I was determined to work hard every day to get back to where I am now,” Baker said. “Wasn’t the route I had planned to take, but I also understood that I needed time mentally because I had a lot going on as a freshman. I went to Harcum and was in good hands with Coach Riley (Maye III) and that program. We went to the Final Four, and then I ended up at Drexel. Something in my heart told me that Drexel was the right fit for me.”

Amaris Baker has been shining in the Dragons’ last ten games, averaging 16.9 points per outing, 4.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game while shooting 53.4 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from 3-point distance. (Photo credit: CAA)

Baker has been shining in the Dragons’ last ten games, averaging 16.9 points per outing, 4.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game while shooting 53.4 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from 3-point distance. Her increased production coincided with the Dragons’ rallying cry, “Because we can.” 

“We had so many battles during the season that we lost games because we didn’t take care of the small things,” Mallon said. “I made the point to the team that I will keep telling you that I know you can do it, but you just have to believe you can. That’s where it came from, setting the momentum for us coming into the tournament. I said you can do it, and it’s up to you. I could see their eyes lock in.

“I have to credit Amaris for the number of games and minutes she plays and how she performs. We talk about being an Iron Dragon. She’s certainly been an Iron Dragon through and through. She shows up and works hard in practice every day, and you’re seeing the result today.”

“Because we can” became the Dragons’ rallying cry when they trailed 29-23 at halftime on March 7 in a road game at North Carolina A&T, a tough place to win. The Dragons rallied and zipped past the Aggies, 67-54. Drexel hasn’t lost since. It embarked on a March journey to cherish. 

Drexel won its first three CAA tournament games by a combined five points, including a heart-stopping 69-68 semifinal win over rival Towson as the Tigers’ final shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim and fell harmlessly to the floor. 

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Drexel assistant coach Kayla Bacon, a former player who was a member of the Dragons’ 2021 NCAA Tournament team, enjoyed the task of carrying around a small dry-erase board throughout each game of the CAA tournament with the words in black letters, “Because we can.” 

Immediately following the Dragons’ victory, Bacon erased the old saying and wrote in blue letters, “Because we did,” flashing it throughout the facility. Even when Bacon ran to the locker room and grabbed her phone following the on-court celebration, she never let the dry-erase board slip from her hands. 

“Hearing that message from Amy, I said I am down,” Baker said. “I understand what you’re saying because I know we can [win the tournament]. So, my role was to let my teammates know every day that I got you and that we could do this. It was just giving that confidence to them, and it was so contagious. And you see the result now. We needed the challenges we had during the season to understand each other. It took the whole season, but now it’s worth it and means everything.”

Throughout a season of tension, turbulence and triumph, the Dragons remained together even when they went through a stretch where they lost six of nine games from Jan. 21 to Feb. 25. Drexel turned it around and ended the season by winning eight of its final nine games, including six straight heading into its first round NCAA Tournament contest at top seed Texas in the Portland Two regional. 

Drexel was seeded 16th in the Portland Two region and will open with Texas. (Photo credit: CAA)

Drexel is the queen of the CAA despite not having a player named to any of the All-CAA teams. 

The Dragons won the title with plenty of grit and defense, and even though four Stony Brook players scored in double figures, led by All-Tournament selections Gigi Gonzalez and Victoria Keenan, it wasn’t enough. Gonzalez had 18 points, and Keenan added 14 off the bench. Khari Clark (12) and Shamarla King (10) rounded out the quartet of double-figure scorers. 

“I would always write down five things that I am grateful for,” Baker said. “Playing in March Madness has always been one of the things I have wanted to do since I was young, and that was one of the five things I wrote down. The fact that it happened is just so surreal and brought me joy and happiness. This year has been a rollercoaster. Coming together as a group has been awesome.” 

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Written by Rob Knox

Rob Knox is an award-winning professional and a member of the Lincoln (Pa.) Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to having work published in SLAM magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington Post, and Diverse Issues In Higher Education, Knox enjoyed a distinguished career as an athletics communicator for Lincoln, Kutztown, Coppin State, Towson, and UNC Greensboro. He also worked at ESPN and for the Delaware County Daily Times. Recently, Knox was honored by CSC with the Mary Jo Haverbeck Trailblazer Award and the NCAA with its Champion of Diversity award. Named a HBCU Legend by, Knox is a graduate of Lincoln University and a past president of the College Sports Communicators, formerly CoSIDA.

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