Anybody who has been watching the DePaul Blue Demons (9-5; 1-2) closely this season, didn’t feel comfortable when Max Strus nailed a corner 3-point field goal to give DePaul a 57-44 advantage over the Seton Hall Pirates (11-4; 2-1) with 12:49 remaining in the second half.
Maybe, they should have had more faith.
En route to a 75-74 win at Wintrust Arena Sunday afternoon, the Blue Demons absorbed a 13-2 Pirate run late in the second half, didn’t panic as Seton Hall continued to slowly nibble away at their lead after the run, and then latched down defensively when the Pirates pulled to within one point with 1:04 to go, not allowing Seton Hall to score again the rest of the way. It all added up to the Blue Demons first Big East Conference victory of the season and for at least one afternoon shredded the script that the Blue Demons can’t finish with wins in close games.
“I preach to these guys that there are three levels to performing well particularly down the stretch,” Blue Demon head coach Dave Leitao said after the game. “You need to continue to have intensity and I thought we did that. You need to have offensive and defensive execution to get what you want. And you need to have a high level of intelligence too. Sometimes that can wane [intelligence] and today it wasn’t our strong suit because we had some mental errors but those last five minutes I think any three of those areas at any point of time is what helped us.”
With 4:45 remaining in the game, Blue Demon point guard Devin Gage nailed just his third 3-point field goal of the season to put his team up six. With senior wing Eli Cain out of the game with foul trouble for long stretches in the second frame, Gage poured in all 11 of his points in the second half. Nonetheless, the Blue Demons flaked away several opportunities to put the game away late. A brilliantly executed inbounds play with 1:22 to go resulted in a cutting Jaylen Butz missing a gimme at the rim. Seton Hall star Myles Powell would knock down a 3-point field goal on the other end to pull his team to within a point of the lead.
After both teams traded empty possessions, an inbounds play with 10 seconds remaining ended with DePaul big man Femi Olujobi receiving the ball, garnering a double team, and getting tied up for a jump ball. It was possession arrow to the Pirates with 10 seconds to go. But with Butz defending, Seton Hall’s Shavar Reynolds missed a potential game-winning basket from 3-point land.
“It [emotional belief] becomes a big part of what good teams use to be good,” Leitao said. “You can see that Seton Hall has some self-belief. It allows a guy like [Jared] Rhoden to make a jump shot when he’s not a jump shooter by statistics this time during the season. You need to believe in yourself, believe in your teammates, and you have to believe in us and by us I mean what our message is, what we need to do offensively or defensively. Our opportunities are going to keep coming and we have to be ready for it [emotionally].”
Like they have done so many times this season, the Blue Demons built a lead with a solid first half.
Back-to-back dunks out of the under 12-minute timeout from Paul Reed and Strus [an impressive baseball-style outlet pass from Reed set up the opportunity for Strus] forced a quick timeout from Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard as DePaul ballooned its lead to 22-15. It was part of a DePaul 15-0 run that ate up over five minutes of game time and allowed the Blue Demons to lead 30-16 with 7:23 on the clock.
The two-headed big man monster of Reed [12 points, six rebounds in the first half] and Butz [six points, five rebounds in the first half] fueled the run. After averaging just 13 points on 32 percent from the field in the Blue Demons first two Big East games, Strus nearly matched that output in the first half, pouring in 10 points on 4-for-7 from the field while distributing four assists. He also recorded a highlight reel block late in the second half, smashing away a transition layup from 6-foot-10-inch Seton Hall big man Sandro Mamukelashvili.
But Seton Hall hung in there and whittled away at a Blue Demon lead that peaked at 15 points. When the horn sounded to end the first half, the Pirates trailed the Blue Demons 38-33, surviving a 12-for-30 showing from the field [40 percent] and 1-for-12 showing from beyond the 3-point stripe.
Strus finished with a game-high 21 points and marched all the way up to No. 11 all-time in Blue Demon history with his now 125 career 3-point field goals. Reed and Butz finished with 12 points and nine rebounds apiece, while Olujobi cashed in 10 points with his typically efficient shooting (4-for-6 from the field).
The Blue Demons continue Big East play on Saturday in a road contest against St. John’s armed with their first conference win of the season and a new belief that a close game late isn’t a recipe for disaster.
“That we can win these games,” Strus said when asked what he and his teammates learned today. “We’ve been in close games all year. We’ve been up in all these games and unfortunately in these last four or five of them we lost. We had that lead again today and lost it, but today it feels good to come out on top. So we learned that we can do it [win close games].”