Valiant conclusion: DePaul falls short to Xavier, ends season with gritty performance at the Garden


John Minchillo | AP

DePaul’s Jalen Terry (3) drives against Xavier’s Souley Boum (0) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game during the quarterfinals of the Big East conference tournament, Thursday, March 9, 2023, in New York.

DePaul’s up-and-down season came to an abrupt end after losing 89-84 on Thursday night to Xavier in the Big East Tournament Quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden. The Musketeers diminished the Blue Demons nine-point halftime lead as DePaul struggled on defense to contain junior guard Colby Jones, who scored 18 of his 22 points in the second half.

“I’m proud of these guys and their fight and being a resilient bunch,” head coach Tony Stubblefield said. “These guys went through a lot of adversity throughout the course of this year and they could have gave into it a lot, dealing with all the injuries that we had and things that happened to our team. It wasn’t what we envisioned it to be over the course of the summer and even in the fall, but these guys really stuck with it.”

DePaul shot the best it has in Big East Tournament history at 61%, making 35-of-57 from the field. Still, the record numbers weren’t enough to overcome Xavier’s success at the free throw line, as the Musketeers made 20 free throws and found a way to win after trailing for more than 36 minutes.

The undersized Blue Demons were only out-rebounded by one in the gritty performance, equaling Xavier’s point-in-the-paint total and scoring 19 more bench points than the Musketeers.

Head coach Tony Stubblefield couldn’t help but feel disheartened following Thursday night’s battle.

“I thought we played well enough to win the game,” Stubblefield said. “I think the biggest discrepancy was we won in a lot of areas but we didn’t get to the [free throw] line enough. They shot 27 free throws and we shot seven. There’s a difference of 20 free throws there. Just didn’t get to the line enough and that’s one area where we got beat.”

The first half may have been DePaul’s strongest of the season, shooting 9-of-10 to open the game and take a 21-14 lead. The Blue Demons’ lead reached as high as 13, which resulted in the team heading into halftime with an improbable 49-40 advantage.

DePaul had nearly a flawless performance offensively in the first half, shooting 69% from the field and 70% from three.

“We were really focused on getting stops more than anything because we were playing good offensively,” senior forward Javan Johnson said of the team’s first half performance. “We were just trying to buckle down and get stops.”

Senior guard Umoja Gibson was the star of the first half for the Blue Demons, scoring 13 points, highlighted by five three-pointers. Before fouling out, Gibson ended his final collegiate game with 22 points and six assists, while shooting 4-of-6 from beyond the arc and a plus minus of six.

Gibson finished his accomplished collegiate career with 428 three-pointers, ranking 15th all-time in NCAA Division I basketball history.

Xavier bounced back in the second half, outscoring DePaul 49-35 while holding the Demons to a 17% shooting performance from beyond the arc. Around the 16-minute mark, the Musketeers went on a 5-0 run that set the tone for the remainder of the game and found a way to force Gibson into foul trouble for the Blue Demons.

Even though Xavier only led for two and a half minutes, the team wouldn’t go away as DePaul struggled to finish off the Musketeers. A 14-2 run, led by Jones running the offense in crunch time, finished the game for Xavier and put a nail in the coffin of DePaul’s season.

“We just kind of went straight set play, and we called [Jones’] and number quite a bit, not just because of his scoring but, number one, he can get fouled,” Xavier head coach Sean Miller said. “Number two, he’s a very good decision-maker. He can pass the ball and I thought the shots he was getting and we were getting going to him really set us apart and in my mind that was the difference in the game down the stretch.

Xavier’s comeback win over DePaul spoke of the resiliency of the group and the team’s nine point halftime deficit was its largest of the season.

“We’re thrilled to still be alive,” Miller said. “I thought that DePaul played a great game. Could have easily lost that game three, five, 10 times over. But I think the resiliency of our group, the experience of these guys sticking with it and finishing the game that, quite frankly, wasn’t going well for us throughout, it’s a difficult task.”

DePaul’s season didn’t go as planned, but finding a way to win a tournament game against Seton Hall on Wednesday and playing tough against Xavier could be seen as a step in the right direction for the program. 

Stubblefield is the only coach in program history to win a Big East tournament game in the first two seasons as head coach.

“By no means am I happy with the year that we had,” Stubblefield said. “We had some unfortunate circumstances. It’s not what I envisioned. I do think we finished stronger, but I think it helped that we had our entire team. Obviously, I was happy with the outcome that we had last night. I thought these guys put a great fight up for 40 minutes tonight against a very, very good basketball team. And we’ve got to build upon this and take this to the next level. That’s the reality of this.