NEWARK, Del. -- Basketball always has been a hard sell at the University of Delaware.
While Tubby Raymond's football team has regularly played to standing-room-only crowds in the stadium next door, the Blue Hens' basketball team considered it a good night if they could coax 500 people into Delaware Field House to watch them.
But that was then and this is now. Now, Delaware has a red-hot basketball team that has reeled off 17 wins in a row and won the North Atlantic Conference regular-season title in a walk.
Now, a team that has spent a significant part of its history being more ignored on this campus than the chess team is grabbing the headlines and playing to full houses.
Before a sellout crowd of 2,561 screaming fans, the Blue Hens rolled to their 24th win of the season Wednesday night, outlasting Drexel, 72-66. The turnout was the eighth largest in the building's history and the fourth sellout of the season.
Delaware's 17-game winning streak is the second longest in the country, surpassed only by Nevada-Las Vegas's 22-game string. They also are one of just three teams (UNLV and Pepperdine are the other two) to tiptoe through their league schedule without a defeat (14-0).
"Our season's been great and fine," said forward Alex Coles, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds against Drexel. "But it's not going to mean much if we don't do well in the tournament. We want these next three games. We NEED these next three games."
The NAC Tournament gets under way Saturday. All tourney games will be played at the home of the higher seeded team, which means the Blue Hens could earn their first-ever NCAA Tournament invitation without ever leaving Delaware Field House.
The Blue Hens (24-3) will host No. 8 seed Hartford (6-20 overall, 3-11 in the NAC) in the first round, and No. 2 seed Drexel (14-13, 9-5) will entertain No. 7 seed New Hampshire (7-20, 5-9).
Coach Steve Steinwedel has done a magnificent job turning around Delaware's basketball fortunes. He has put together a deep, balanced team that plays hard-nosed defense and has five players averaging in double figures.
"They're good, awfully good," Drexel coach Bill Herrion said. "The thing that sets them apart from everybody else in this league is they've got depth.
"There's no drop-off when Steve goes to his bench. They either stay the same or get better. That's a nice quality to have."
Drexel, which had won six in a row before Wednesday night, went after Delaware with a tenacious man-for-man defense that gave the Delaware a lot of trouble early. But the Dragons ran out of gas at the end.
The Dragons shot just 35 percent in the second half and were outrebounded, 46-38, including 21-11 on the offensive glass.
Delaware's rebounding prowess enabled it to overcome a dismal 14-for-26 effort from the free-throw line. During one important second-half stretch, it missed five of seven attempts, but managed to get the ball back and turn two of those misses into baskets, including a back-breaker by center Spencer Dunkley with 2:56 left that put Delaware up by six, 65-59.
The Blue Hens were led by guards Mark Murray and freshman Brian Pearl, who had 18 and 15 points, respectively. Michael Thompson had 20 and Jonathan Raab had 18 for Drexel.
"It feels great to be undefeated right now," said Steinwedel. "We knew we were going to have a good team this year. We just didn't know how good.
"To do what we've done is quite an accomplishment. The NAC is every bit as competitive as we thought it would be, every bit as competitive as the East Coast Conference (which Delaware belonged to last year).
"But all that's history now. It's a new season starting Saturday. All eight teams have a fresh slate."