Alexa Sandler | The DePaulia
The DePaul men’s basketball team found nothing but troubles in the Big East this season. In a conference that has been a slugfest every night, it seemed the Blue Demons were about finished after eight straight losses. Yet on Saturday night against Georgetown, the team found some of that life and magic they had been searching for since a win against Butler on Jan. 19, winning a 74-68 contest where they looked like a rejuvenated bunch.
DePaul and Head Coach Dave Leitao were sitting at 12-1 before the new year with thoughts of being ranked and the NCAA tournament hopes in line for many fans. Then came the 1-12 stretch in conference play, and after their eighth straight loss on Wednesday’s 86-66 thrashing to Villanova, Leitao said this was “more about life than it was about basketball.”
Even the most diehard fans had lost most of their hope, and the experts had all forgotten about the team’s postseason hopes. The win against Georgetown saw a display of what had made the team so great at the midway point, quick, efficient offense, stifling man-defense and alley-oops that got the Wintrust Arena crowd on its feet.
At this point in the season, the Blue Demons are playing for seeding in the Big East tournament, where they hope to get higher than 10th in the conference. Regardless, they will need a showing at Madison Square Garden that would be nothing short of an ultimate Cinderella story if they hope to make the NCAA tournament. But there can still be a little bit of fun at the end of the regular season that hasn’t been kind to DePaul.
The game started with a locked-in frontcourt of Paul Reed and Jaylen Butz, with point guard Charlie Moore running a quick, energetic offense. The Blue Demons controlled a 12-7 lead after five minutes, which was huge for a team that had gone down big in their past two games.
“I just felt like everybody was aggressive,” Moore said. “When you are aggressive things open up, we moved the ball, we got from side to side, passing inside as well and the defense started to open up.”
Despite early success, that had not always meant that DePaul would cruise the rest of the way. They lead 38-32 at the half against this same Georgetown team just two weeks ago before losing 76-72. A three-minute scoring drought came and the Hoyas hit a few shots to regain the lead. If precedent from games’ past struck, this would be the point where the Blue Demons would let it slip.
Yet Saturday felt just a bit different. DePaul found a consistent rhythm, with the big “it” moment coming with 3:26 left in the first half as Romeo Weems hit a three on the left wing to take a 27-26 lead after falling behind. After a missed jumper on the Hoyas’ end, Weems struck again from the same spot to extend the lead to 4. On the next DePaul possession, Weems snuck away from the defense and hit a three on the right side wing to score his ninth point of the game, putting the Wintrust crowd on its feet.
“My teammates they just always tell me to be aggressive and play my game so I feel that they just found me tonight and kept me going, encouraging me to shoot my shot and play my game,” Weems said.
That kind of energy had been missing in many of the recent Blue Demons’ home games. After the win, Leitao made note of how proud he was of the team and the crowd. “To have the support in the crowd today, and they were there they were loud and I think they gave us an energy boost,” he said.
In order for that energy to be there, the men’s team needed to bring it. “Energy” was somewhat of a buzzword in previous press conferences, with Leitao citing the lack thereof as the main reason for the recent skid.
Romeo Weems was a great spark plug – the freshman ended with a career-high 19 points while playing swallowing defense on Georgetown’s perimeter. The Hoyas failed to move the ball, with just nine assists on 21 made field goals. Weems hit four of five threes to reach a career-high in shooting. “That’s just part of what I think scratches the surface of how good he will be in so many different areas,” Leitao said.
“They played well,” Hoyas Head Coach Patrick Ewing said. “They made their free throws, they went on runs, they played great defensively, they hurt us in the first half with 11 offensive rebounds.”
Jaylen Butz, usually a big part of the offensive and defensive glass, picked up two quick fouls that sidelined him for a majority of the first half. Filling the void was 7’2” freshman Nick Ongenda and sixth man Darious Hall, who flew around the court grabbing rebounds. Butz was able to get back on the floor, connecting with Moore for a few alley-oops as he finished with 10 points in 23 minutes.
Another player who had one of his best games was Oscar Lopez Jr., who played the backup guard spot but shared the floor with Moore. “Oscar gave us something different today because he was energized,” Leitao said.
On the other end of a lively DePaul team was a depleted Georgetown team missing its top scorer in Mac McClung. The Hoyas are fighting for their season, with a 5-9 Big East record that needs a few more wins to get in as a bubble team. They only got offensive production from three players, and forward Omer Yurtseven was battling an ankle issue through the night.
DePaul has the opportunity to play spoiler to other Big East teams, with contests against Xavier, Butler, Marquette and Providence on the horizon. The last hope will be in New York City in mid-March, and the Blue Demons will take whatever they can get in the time being.