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DePaul senior Eli Cain flanked by sophomores Jaylen Butz and Paul Reed get ready for a defensive possession against Rockhurst on Thursday night. 
Richard Bodee | The DePaulia

DePaul senior Eli Cain flanked by sophomores Jaylen Butz and Paul Reed get ready for a defensive possession against Rockhurst on Thursday night. Richard Bodee | The DePaulia

DePaul senior Eli Cain flanked by sophomores Jaylen Butz and Paul Reed get ready for a defensive possession against Rockhurst on Thursday night. Richard Bodee | The DePaulia

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The Rockhurst University Hawks, a Division II program from Missouri, weren’t messing around when they arrived at Wintrust Arena Thursday night for a date with the DePaul Blue Demons.

The final score, 72-65, doesn’t indicate how competitive the game was.

“We couldn’t string together any continual positive things,” Blue Demon head coach Dave Leitao said after the game. “We’re playing pretty good on defense, then we foul. Ball bounces off somebody’s hands and things that come with [being a young team]. When you do that and play a team that has the kind of energy and motivation that they came with, things don’t end up being as easy. Credit goes to them for being extremely ready and well prepared.”

Down seven points with 2:41 to go, Hawks senior forward Auston Rushing hit a 3-point field goal to cut the Blue Demon advantage to four points. It was the closest the Hawks would get the rest of the game, as the two teams traded off baskets and then the Blue Demons hit free throws to escape with a victory.

“It’s really our first time playing against somebody else,” Blue Demon senior forward Eli Cain said. “Like I said earlier, this is a new team. Me and Max [Strus] are really the only two guys who put in significant minutes last year. We have a new class, new guys, transfers, and freshmen so we just have some things that we need to work on.”

The Hawks were competitive from the get-go. The first 10 minutes of the game, chalk it up to a small program making the most of its opportunity against the big boys, Rockhurst’s NBA Finals if you will. But as the game ticked on and the disparity in the score didn’t change, it went from a cute story to this team is for real.

A layup from Hawks sophomore guard Chris Hamil cut the Blue Demon advantage to three points with 3:54 left in the first half. A gritty defensive play by Hawks forward Connor Evans where he poked away the ball from Cain then dove to the floor to retain possession set up that basket.

But then Blue Demon sophomore big men Jaylen Butz and Paul Reed realized they were the two biggest guys on the floor. Butz scored on two-straight possessions, then wiped out a transition opportunity for the Hawks with an emphatic block. On the next possession, Reed grabbed a Strus miss midair and smoothly put it back with one hand to extend the lead to six points. The next possession, Reed discarded two Hawk defenders for an offensive rebound that led to an easy layup.

“Paul and Jaylen have done a really good job at being consistent with some of the non-statistical things,” Leitao said. “Paul has a great ability to bother shots, offensive rebound, run the floor, finish, and play defense. Jaylen can be a really good anchor on the defensive end and can hedge ball screens. So we have to define those things clearer for those two and everybody to create the kind of team chemistry we need.”

Rockhurst sophomore big man Quinton Curry hit two free-throw attempts to knot the game at 47 with 12:37 left in the game. It was made possible by four turnovers in a lousy five-minute stretch by DePaul. Out of the under 12-minute timeout, the intensity defensively amped up for DePaul and the Blue Demons went on an 8-2 run. But they still couldn’t shake the pesky Hawk who were in the game the entire second half.

After a bad first half, Cain finished with a game-high 19 points. Reed added 12 more on 6-for-9 shooting as the bigger Blue Demons unsurprisingly enjoyed a 42-26 advantage in points in the paint.

“We don’t have a lot on-court-by-minutes-experience,” Leitao said. “Today, Eli really was the only one who played significant minutes [in previous seasons] other than Max who was just coming back. So there’s an uneasiness about exactly what to do on any given trip down the court. The flip side of that is there’s a season ahead and there’s difficult games starting next week. So we need to have a sense of urgency on a day-to-day basis. Trying to balance patience with a sense of urgency is a challenge for all of us.”

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