Coming off its most impressive win of the season over Louisville on Friday, DePaul returned to action with a short trip to UIC Tuesday night.
After such an emotional win over the Cardinals on the road four days ago, the Blue Demons looked to avoid the classic let-down game against a struggling Flames squad, who entered the night with a 3-6 record.
DePaul managed to come away with a 72-66 win over UIC, improving its record to 9-1 on the season.
“We found a way,” DePaul head coach Tony Stubblefield said. “That’s been our motto [this season]. It wasn’t pretty, they are all not going to be pretty. It’s a road win against a very tough, gritty UIC team that really came to play.”
The Flames looked to catch the Blue Demons sleeping after its win over Louisville and an upcoming visit to Northwestern on Saturday — and the home team did just that in the first half.
With just under four minutes left in the game, UIC took a surprising 66-63 lead thanks to a 7-0 run, setting up a tense final few minutes for the Blue Demons.
DePaul junior forward Nick Ongenda got DePaul within one following a timeout from Stubblefield. Then, senior guard Javon Freeman-Liberty — who has been the team’s leader all season long — scored seven straight points to make sure the Blue Demons wouldn’t suffer a debilitating upset loss.
Freeman-Liberty finished the game with 27 points on 8-of-23 shooting and also grabbed seven rebounds. Sophomore forward David Jones also had a strong outing after he scored a career-high 33 points in the win over Louisville, finishing with 15 points and nine rebounds Tuesday night.
“I think I just stuck to the plan — attack, play aggressive, play my game,” he said.
There were several moments in the second half where it looked like DePaul was getting ready to go on a big run to put this game away, but UIC kept responding with one big basket after another to keep the score close.
The Blue Demons, who went into halftime with a 33-30 lead, increased their lead to six right out of the break. But the Flames’ Damaria Franklin made sure that DePaul didn’t pull away too far. He scored his team’s first nine points in the second half.
DePaul took its largest lead of the game with 10:22 left, going up 56-48 thanks to an 8-2 run. When it just looked like the Blue Demons were about to open up a big lead, the home team responded with five consecutive points.
Both teams struggled from the 3-point line on Tuesday, combining to go 8-for-43, but UIC hit two big 3-pointers followed by a 3-point play in a three-minute stretch to pull within two, 61-59.
DePaul has put in better performances this season, especially on the offensive end. The Blue Demons shot 45.9 percent from the field but only 20 percent from behind the arc.
“We got to share the ball a little bit more,” Stubblefield said. “We got to change sides of the floor and get the ball moving. We did miss some good looks tonight that we normally make, but that’s going to be the case over the course of 30 games.”
It took a little while for DePaul to find its rhythm in the first half, starting the game trailing 11-3. But the Blue Demons answered with their own 11-2 spurt to take a 14-13 advantage.
The Flames, however, kept playing hard and took a 27-21 lead midway through the first half before DePaul responded with a 12-3 run to close the first 20 minutes.
Nick Ongenda, who nearly had a triple double on Friday, was the third Blue Demon in double figures, finishing with 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
DePaul closes out non-conference play with a trip to Northwestern on Saturday.