DePaul breaks through with overtime win over Penn State


Seniors Eli Cain and Max Strus embrace after a 72-70 win against Penn State Thursday night. Richard Bodee | The DePaulia

Shane Colburn normally wouldn’t have ventured over to Wintrust Arena on a cold Thursday night in the midst of finals weeks to watch the DePaul Blue Demon men’s basketball team beat the Penn State Nittany Lions 72-70 in an overtime thriller.

After all, he’s only been to a few games at Wintrust Arena. But tonight, he had an incentive in the form of a $2 beer promo for students that created one of the better student section atmospheres Wintrust Arena has seen in its young existence.

“I’ll go anywhere for $2 beer,” Colburn said. “I had my last final yesterday, so I was thinking about doing something anyway. That was kind of nice so I was like heck yeah, I’ll go. A $2 beer promo is always going to get people in the door for sure.”

“Our students were great today,” Blue Demon head coach Dave Leitao said after the game. ” I thought they kept in it and sometimes they had some reasons to get down because we had stretches where we didn’t play so well. Hopefully it means that as they leave the building and talk about it more people will keep coming and coming because I think that growth in our team will spread throughout our fanbase.”

DePaul picked a good night to coax students to the South Loop with alcohol. Tonight was the first time since the 2008-2009 season that DePaul has started the season 3-0. It was the first time they’ve beaten a Big Ten opponent since they defeated Northwestern in December 2013, and the first time the Blue Demons have won a Gavitt Tipoff Games contest in the four seasons of its existence.

But it didn’t come easy. In fact, it took blowing a late 10-point lead in the final 3:41 of regulation and then scraping out a victory in overtime to do it. It was probably a good thing that there was cheap alcohol for the students who came and watched.

In the overtime period, the Blue Demons held the Nittany Lions to an 0-for-6 from the field and needed just four total points in that period to emerge victorious. It was a drastic shift in momentum after the Nittany Lions owned the final five minutes of regulation.

With 1:54 left to play, Penn State freshman guard Myles Dread nailed a 3-point field goal to cut the Blue Demon advantage to five. Penn State’s guard tandem of Josh Reaves and Jamari Wheeler cranked up the defense, initiating a full-court press that generated two turnovers and two easy buckets for the Nittany Lions that brought them to within a point of the lead.

After a Max Strus miss under the basket, Penn State star Lamar Stevens (he finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds) nailed a free throw to tie the game with 19.6 seconds left. For 15 seconds on the next possession, DePaul didn’t run much offense before Cain took it himself only to have Penn State freshman Rasir Bolton steal the ball from him, dribble it the other way, and miss a contested layup at the buzzer. Strus, the leading scorer in the game for the Blue Demons with 21 points, inbounded the ball on that play and didn’t touch it after.

For awhile, it looked like the Blue Demons would never get that close and that the beer would be the only fun part of the game for the students.

It took until the 15:47 mark in the first half for the Blue Demons to notch their first points. By that time, Penn State was up 11-0 feasting off  six Blue Demon turnovers while holding DePaul to just two attempts from the field.

“There was no panic because there wasn’t a need for panic,” Leitao said. “It’s a long game. I didn’t want it to get to 16, 18, or 20 and dig ourselves too deep of a hole, but usually games at this level between two really good teams there is some ebb and flow to it. I thought we looked tight and needed to loosen up and they agreed. They ended up taking the lead before halftime. It’s just a situation where you need to maintain your poise.”

After the timeout, Leitao adjusted in a big way. Literally. Big men Paul Reed and Femi Olujobi checked in and proceeded to lead the Blue Demons on an 8-3  run with all the scoring coming from those two. By the 10:11 mark in the second half, the Blue Demons had crawled all the way back to even at 19.

“I thought Femi played a lot more like the expectation we had for him when he came here,” Leitao said after the game. “Paul had some really good minutes, wish there were more [he was in foul trouble]. JB [Butz] did a great job on both ends, had 15 rebounds, and guarded one of the best players in the country [Lamar Stevens]. He’s a naturally quick jumper, first jump, second jump. He pursues the ball on both ends.”

Gage gave the Blue Demons a lead at 27-26 after he challenged the bigger Reaves in transition for a three-point play opportunity after swatting away a loose dribble. The foul forced Reaves, Penn State’s best defender, out of the game for the last 4:20 of the first half with his second personal foul.

The Blue Demons ended the half up 36-31. Gage’s 12 points in the first half nearly matched his career-high 13 points (he finished with 14 points). After six turnovers in the first four minutes of the game, the Blue Demons flipped the script forcing the Nittany Lions into nine turnovers in the first half.

Outside of Strus (21 points), the night belonged to Blue Demon big men. Reed, Butz and Olujobi combined for 29 points and helped the Blue Demons outrebound the Nittany Lions 47-36. Butz finished with a new career high 15 rebounds. After the stressful win, Leitao thinks that the DePaul athletic department should treat him like they did the students.

“I’m owed two beers for $4, I didn’t get any,” Leitao said after the game. “I’ll probably have to see if I can get it after, I don’t know if there’s any left.”