Column: Stuffed Dibs and beer chugs: a buzzing night at Wintrust Arena


Ryan Gilroy | The DePaulia

A crowd forming at halftime by the bathrooms and concessions, the crowds were the largest they had been all year.

The sparkling new arena in the South Loop still hadn’t seen anything like this.

On Wednesday night, everything came to fruition for the Blue Demons who hosted last year’s national runner-up Texas Tech at Wintrust Arena, in no question their biggest home game at the new arena since it’s construction prior to the 2017-18 season. There was the first game, of course, against Notre Dame where a little over 7,000 fans were in attendance.

But in the city of Chicago, where 20,000 Notre Dame faithful live along with the city being just a short skip from South Bend, that game was just not the same. Last night was a DePaul night, through and through. No longer were people there to check out the new arena, they were there to see the dazzling demons on their quest to shock the nation.

And shock they did as Jalen Coleman-Lands hit the three to tie the game with just 11 seconds left to send the game into OT. Wintrust erupted with a new life that nobody had really seen since it opened its doors just two years ago. Things got even louder when they dribbled out the clock to the tune of a 65-60 victory in overtime.

Yet prior to all the noise of the actual game, the halls of Wintrust had a different feel —a feel of a city coming back to its most storied college basketball program. It helps that DePaul is legitimately good. A collection of two new transfers, a solid recruiting class, and the growth across the board all had head coach Dave Leitao and his team at 8-0 going into last night’s test.

The Blue Demons picked up their first buzz of the season when they trounced Iowa on the road in a game that didn’t really look close. After taking care of business at home against another soft opponent, they went to Boston College and came away with a victory.

Although if you have watched this team play this season, the game that said the most about this team was against Central Michigan on Nov. 26.

The Blue Demons came into that game 6-0 riding high after their win in Boston. Yet they got smacked in the mouth in the first half, going into the locker room down 18. Was it finally time? Was this team coming back down to its outside expectations: last place in the Big East coaches’ poll?

Maybe a different Blue Demons’ team, but this isn’t one that you have seen before if you are under the age of 30.

DePaul roared back to a special second half where they turned the 18 point deficit into a 13 point win.

Although, hey, you have to beat Central Michigan at home, they certainly are no Stephen F Austin. Therefore, it took a gritty road win in a hostile environment at Minnesota to really set up last night’s game.

So it was their next game back at Wintrust that was the one. Their game against Texas Tech was going to decide for all the outsiders if they were “back.”

That might be the reason for the busiest night at Wintrust all season. On my walk from the green line to Wintrust, I saw more people than I had seen all season wearing DePaul gear and even heard people chattering about them. It was easy to foresee this game being the one that would bring everyone back. In the end, 5500 people were reported at the game.

In the past, the actual number is usually half of the reported number, but this game didn’t really feel like that. There may have not been the whole reported amount, yet the crowd noise was big enough of a factor that it felt different than past games. 

Wintrust is conveniently located for the city of Chicago, so it isn’t surprising that there are plenty of fans who have no DePaul ties. John Gross of Chicago’s South Side comes to a lot of home games despite not being a DePaul alum or staff member. Last night felt a little more special to him.

“There’s a lot more people, the energy is here,” he said

He’s been a fan ever since Wintrust opened but acknowledges the new circumstances bringing fans out. “People want to see wins,” Gross said. “I feel like if they got a good team to come to see that will bring it.”

The energy was apparent during the pregame and halftime buzz as the lines were growing longer than anyone had seen so far this season. Tabarie Franks, a security guard at Wintrust, could feel the different vibe.

Ryan Gilroy | The DePaulia
The concession lines grew a whole lot from past games to last night.

“They told us this from the get-go, the more we win the more recognition we are going to get,” Franks said. “So, I already knew once they said we was getting Texas [Tech], I already knew we were going to bring a lot of people out.”

And despite the larger crowd and a bit tougher of a job controlling the crowd, Franks is happy for the challenge.

“It’s the same either way it goes if it’s ten people or it’s 2000 people,” he said. “I’m going to do my job regardless, as long as everyone is cool, and everyone enjoys the show.”

DePaul is in a unique situation being in the city. With an arena close to downtown and accessible by train, highway or bus, they are a team that isn’t only for the ones who can afford to go to school there. It’s the driving lifeblood of a team that is making their mark once again on the national landscape.

Of course, anyone who knows the history of DePaul basketball knows this isn’t the first time there has been some hype. The 20th century was a lot kinder to the Blue Demons, who made 14 NCAA tournaments in a 16 year stretch in the late ‘70s to early ‘90s.

Someone who knows all about that is Fred Radakovitz, class of ’72. Radakovitz has been a season ticket holder just about every year since he graduated. The commute to Wintrust from his home in the western suburbs is just as easy as the one he used to take to Rosemont, and last night’s game felt a lot different than it had been in a while

“This is the most exciting it’s been in quite a while, about 20 years,” Radakovitz said.

Things can’t be as fun as one with season tickets would hope over the past decade or so with zero tournament trips in the past 15 seasons. It’s enough to make a weak fan break, but Fred persisted. And the wait might be paying off.

“I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel a couple years ago, but maybe they are going to turn the corner now,” he said.

There is no shortage of optimism from Blue Demons fans this season.

Sue Arenz, manager of print and mailing services on campus, is more excited for this season than in years past. She’s been coming to DePaul games as a season ticket holder ever since she started working at the school. Last night, she brought seven friends along with her.

And the sudden long concession lines aren’t too big of a deal to her. “Well, that’s ok with me,” she said. “The energy is great. Everybody’s just overly excited about our team.”

There is great reason to be excited for this team, at halftime, with the score at 26-23, one could feel the tension in the arena. Walking around, people were buying DePaul gear including stuffed plush Dibs mascot dolls. As well as the beer, lots of beer. A first-half fan cam saw six (count ‘em) beer chugs from fans. It was really a fun affair at Wintrust. 

Ryan Gilroy | The DePaulia
There was an array of merchandise available, including stuffed Dibs toys.

The game was tight throughout. A 3-pointer by Texas Tech guard Terrence Shannon Jr. put the visitors up to six with just three minutes to go, it may have felt like a kill shot on a different day.

But the team came back off of some big plays by starters Charlie Moore, Paul Reed, Jaylen Butz, and Romeo Weems. The fifth starter Jalen Coleman-Lands tied the game on a 3-pointer with 11 seconds left. In overtime, Coleman-Lands hit again, and Moore dished out three more assists as they clutched up on a key defensive possession to seal the upset.

Fans rushed the court and capped off a dreamlike night at Wintrust Arena.

“They wouldn’t let us lose,” Leitao said of the fans after the game.

As fans rushed the court, Radakovitz came down from the upper section of the lower bowl to soak in all the glory while wearing a smile that only a fan who had been through the toughest times could muster up.

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Video by: Michael Abraham