Commentary: Want Wintrust Arena on the map? Then Trust Stubbs’


Ben Zebrowski

Players celebrating with fans after DePaul’s 90-81 win over Marquette on March 2, 2022.

Wintrust Arena has been a bit of an enigma this season. On some days, energy was low as the Blue Demons began conference play 1-8, or when stars Javon Freeman-Liberty and David Jones missed time. Yet a few games have instilled an energy in the DePaul faithful, lead on the court by the magnetic Freeman-Liberty and on the sidelines by the equally enthusiastic Tony Stubblefield. Wednesday was one of those nights.

DePaul and Marquette came into Wednesday night’s penultimate conference game with different trajectories and goals. Marquette has had the quality it expected under first-year head coach Shaka Smart, yet have stuttered in the second half of conference play, not being able to string together consecutive wins since Jan 26.

The Blue Demons, on the other hand, have re-lit a fire in a season where they’ve stayed near the bottom of the standings. With DePaul playing their best basketball of the season, and backed by the largest student section of the year, Wintrust Arena was a death trap for the Golden Eagles, it just wasn’t sprung until the second half.

In the first half, DePaul and Marquette mirrored each other for the most part. It was the paint that made the difference for Marquette, who outscored DePaul 24-14 in that area in the half, en route to a 37-33 lead. DePaul sputtered into the locker room, with Freeman-Liberty just 2-for-9 from the field.

If there is one thing that’s true, DePaul under Tony Stubblefield is not the same team as the ones of previous years. The Blue Demons’ second half bounce-backs this year have been proof of that. They cooked up yet another second half doozy, outscoring Marquette 58-43 en route to a 91-80 win and their third straight victory of the season.

After going back and forth to start the half, a magical sequence paved the way for DePaul’s run. At 46-45, junior Yor Anei’s block of a Marquette guard led to a Jalen Terry 3-pointer to take a 48-46 lead. From there, Freeman-Liberty and Terry traded another set of deep shots to blow the game open in a matter of minutes at 61-48. Wintrust Arena was rocking, as the healthy share of Marquette fans in the crowd fell silent. And that trend only continued as the game went on.

“[In the second half] we were more locked in defensively, and being more focused,” Stubblefield said. “We were giving up layups [in the first half] and giving up points at the rim.”

Wednesday was the perfect example of a game that established programs get to have every night. The kind of atmosphere in the South Loop on Wednesday is one obtainable for DePaul night-in-night-out. In America’s best college basketball environments, there is a ritual of pure energy flowing through the crowd, drowning out any noise the opponents can make, digging under their skin.

“[The atmosphere] was very special, especially with it being the last game in Wintrust Arena, all I’ll say is I appreciate and thank [the fans],” Freeman-Liberty said.

The only thing that can make an arena special is time. Wintrust Arena in its fifth year is just getting its feet wet, but with Stubblefield at the helm, it can start to reach the level of the other great arenas in the conference and the country.