2014 DePaul WBB: Giving the Ball Away

CHICAGO- The office of DePaul women’s basketball head coach Doug Bruno is on the second floor of McGrath-Phillips Arena. On the south sideline of the court, named after him in 2010, is Bruno’s signature. And in between those two tangibles lies this intangible: winning.

Bruno (560-301) enters his 29th year as head coach at DePaul. His teams have won 20 or more games in 11 of the last 12 years, have qualified for the NCAA Tournament in each of the last 12 seasons, and have made three Sweet 16 appearances. And with any successful result, there exists the question of method. In DePaul’s case, that method is giving the ball away.

“Our goal is to lead the nation in assists,” said Bruno. “We are always going to hit the open player, but we are always going to teach the players that that is not enough, but that you also have to hit that player with precision and on time.”

DePaul finished last year 29-7 (15-3, Big East), won the Big East regular season title, and won the conference tournament en route to the program’s third Sweet 16 appearance. The Blue Demons set school records for points (3,006), three-point field goals (314), and most importantly, assists (705).

Full Court Passes

DePaul had 343 assists in its first 16 games, including a season-high 28 assists versus Harvard and again versus Bradley, but that stretch seemed, at times, more like Giving the Game Away.

An early season 82-79 loss to Northwestern saw DePaul down 20-4 early, only to have the Blue Demons let a four-point lead evaporate in the final minute. That was followed by a home loss to No. 5 Kentucky, where DePaul gave up a seven point lead in the final 90 seconds of the first half, eventually falling 96-85. Big East losses to Creighton and St. John’s left pre-season conference pick DePaul at 2-2 in conference play. Seton Hall followed, and the Pirates led DePaul 31-27 at the half. DePaul rallied to win, 75-68,launching a nine-game win streak and the team winning 13 of its last 14 regular season games.

Of the 362 assists DePaul had the rest of the year, the three most important came in NCAA Tournament games versus Oklahoma and Duke.

Oklahoma’s second half comeback left DePaul with a 100-97 lead with forty seconds to play. DePaul’s Brittany Hrynko then found herself double-teamed left of the foul line. Her twisting pass to Megan Rogowski in the left corner resulted in Rogowski’s jumper, and a safe distance, as DePaul won, 104-100, the highest combined point total for a regulation game in NCAA Women’s Tournament history. The Blue Demons had 20 assists for the game.

Next was No. 2 seed Duke (28-6) at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils had not lost an NCAA Tournament second round game at home since 1996, when San Francisco beat them 64-60. The Blue Devils took their first lead, 28-27, at 18:08 of the second half. And then Hrynko struck again, finding Megan Podkowa trailing on a play and Podkowa draining a three-pointer.

At 17:34 of the second half, DePaul’s Chanise Jenkins stole a pass in the back court. She dribbled left of the lane and fed a trailing and cutting Podkowa for a layup and a 32-28 lead. The Blue Demons did not trail the rest of the game.

Hrynko and Jenkins combined for 389 assists last year.

Complete Passes

DePaul was again named to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Academic Top 25 Team Honor Roll. With a cumulative 3.559 grade point average, the Blue Demons finished eighth in the annual academic poll. DePaul was one of just three programs in the Top 25 to have gone to the NCAA Tournament, and was the only one to reach the Sweet 16. DePaul has appeared in eight of the last nine polls and has been ranked in the Top 10 the last five seasons. The Blue Demons claimed the highest team grade point average among all Big East schools for the seventh consecutive season and were the only Big East team in the poll.

Inside Higher Education ran a hypothetical academic NCAA Tournament, pitting the 64 teams in brackets. DePaul “beat” Marist in the title game. The Blue Demons’ opponent in the first round “game?” Duke.

Diagonal Passes

DePaul opens the regular season with the three-day Maggie Dixon Classic at McGrath-Phillips Arena. DePaul gets a rematch with Texas A&M, which beat DePaul, 84-65, in last year’s Sweet 16 match up, on Nov. 14 at 6:30 CT. The game will be carried on the Big East Digital Network.

“As well as we played at Duke last year, I don’t know that we played our best in the game against Texas A&M,” said Bruno. “The team is looking forward to the opportunity [against A&M] to get back to playing the way we played.”

The Blue Demons play NCAA Tournament runner-up Notre Dame at home on Dec. 10th at 8 p.m. CT, with the game televised on FOX Sports 2. DePaul travels to play defending champion Connecticut on Dec. 19th.

“I like to look at games like Texas A&M, Notre Dame, and Connecticut as ‘make’ games and not ‘make or break’ games,” said Bruno. “Those are games that can really help make us.”

DePaul is one of only three teams to play both Notre Dame and Connecticut during this year’s regular season.

In-state competition for DePaul is Bradley, Northwestern, Chicago State, Loyola, and Illinois State.

“What makes the schedule so difficult is teams like Northwestern because they have everybody back,” said Bruno. “South Dakota State (at home on Nov. 22) is a really good program, and Loyola is very much improved. Those are the games that are really important.”

DePaul is the unanimous pre-season pick to win the Big East. Hrynko and Rogowski were unanimous picks to the pre-season All-Big East team. The Blue Demons start conference play at home against Butler on Dec. 3rd .

To see DePaul’s biggest obstacle this year in a grain of sand is this: replacing Jasmine Penny and her 15.8 ppg. Penny, the Big East Tournament’s Most Valuable Player and a Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Honorable Mention All-America selection, shot .580 percent from the field her senior year, good for eleventh in the nation.

Her loss is not lost on this year’s players or on Bruno.

“I am trying to be more aggressive this year and trying to score more,” said Podkowa, her front court mate of the past two seasons. “All of us know that we have to take over [Penny’s] scoring.”

DePaul is always loaded with guards, and this year is no different. But with Penny gone, this is the first year in many that DePaul does not have a true experienced post player.

“I think we have excellent guard play,” said Bruno. “Jasmine Penny has to be replaced. And I think we have to establish some semblance of inside play. I am going to be very happy if we have a serviceable inside game. And there is no mystery about that- I am talking about Brandi Harvey-Carr. If she puts herself into a serviceable place, which is one spot below a go-to place, if she is serviceable I think we can be really good. If she is not serviceable, I still think we can be really good but it is going to be difficult to play teams that have overwhelming size.”

DePaul returns the following players:

- Brittany Hrynko, 5’8” senior guard. Associated Press Honorable Mention selection last year. Unanimous First Team All Big East pick. Her 5.7 apg led the Big East and was among the top 30 in Division I. Career-high 12 assists twice. Led the Big East in steals at 2.4 spg. She received All-Tournament honors in the Maggie Dixon Classic and the Duel in the Desert Tournament. She averaged 12.7 ppg.

- Megan Rogowski, 5’9” senior guard. Big East Honorable Mention selection last year. Set new McGrath-Phillips Arena record with eight three-pointers and scored a career-high 30 points versus Providence. Scored 22 points on 6-12 from three-point range versus Duke. Came into the Sweet 16 game tied for ninth in the NCAA Tournament at 23.0 ppg. No. 3 in the country in three-point field goal percentage at .452.

- Centrese McGee, 5’7” senior guard. Appeared in 35 games, playing double figure minutes in 15 of her last 17 games. Had career-high in rebounds while at DePaul of 11 versus Providence. Was 13th in the Big East in steals 1.4 per game. Had 50 total steals.

- Chanise Jenkins, 5’5” junior guard. Finished 16 games with one or zero turnovers last year. Had career-high 10 assists twice. Averaged 10.9 ppg and scored a career-high 23 points versus Marquette in the Big East Tournament. All-Tournament honors at the Maggie Dixon Classic. Named MVP of the Duel in the Desert Tournament. Her .875 free throw percentage last year is No. 1 all-time at DePaul for a single season.

- Megan Podkowa, 6’2” guard/forward. Started 32 games last year. Led DePaul in rebounding and was 12th in the BIG EAST with 6.3 rpg. Had career-highs in points, 20, versus Northwestern, and in rebounds, 13, versus Notre Dame. Shot .480 percent from the field. Had 12 points and nine rebounds in Big East Tournament win versus St. John’s. Notched three blocks versus Oklahoma and again versus Duke.

- Jessica January, 5’7” sophomore guard. Named to the All-Big East Freshman team. Scored a season-best 17 points versus Butler. Scored 14 points on 5-8 from the field in the NCAA Tournament win versus Oklahoma. Averaged 3.0 spg in the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Had 53 steals for the year.

- Brandi Harvey-Carr, 6’4” sophomore forward. Appeared in all 36 games last year. Had 14 points and six rebounds versus Illinois State. Shot .396 percentage from the field.

- ShaKeya Graves, 5’9” sophomore guard. Appeared in 19 games. Scored season-high 12 points versus Loyola. Eight of her made 12 field goals were from three-point range. Shot 11-12 from the line.

- Brooke Schulte, 5’9” sophomore guard. Appeared in 24 games. Had season-highs of eight points and three rebounds versus Bradley. Shot .480 percent from the field on 12-25 for the season.

- Meri Bennett-Swanson, 6’3” sophomore forward. Appeared in 20 games, with a season-best 12 minutes versus Harvard. Shot .467 percent from the field.

DePaul adds the following recruits:

- Mart’e Grays, 6’2” freshman forward from Martin Luther King Jr. H.S. in Detroit. Grays was a Michigan Miss Basketball nominee her senior year. She averaged 15.8 ppg, 6.0 rpg, and 2.2 apg her senior year, while shooting .513 percent from the field. She was a three-year starter at King and helped lead the school to three straight Detroit Public League titles. Grays had a 3.3 GPA at King. She wants to pursue a career in forensic science with the FBI.

“Mart’e is an outstanding athlete,” her coach at King, William Winfield, told the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan. “She is an excellent shooter, a great rebounder, and a great passer from the forward position.”

- Elri Liebenberg, 6’5” freshman forward from Bergsi Academy in Rustenburg, South Africa. She averaged 22.0 ppg, 20 rpg, and 5.0 bpg for the Royal Bakofeng program. She has played netball, a variation of basketball, since age seven. She scored 42 points in her first basketball game at age 16.

- Ashton Millender, 5’8” freshman guard from Marian Catholic H.S. in Glenwood, Ill. Millender averaged 16.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, and made 71 three-pointers her senior year. She helped lead Marian to the 2013 state title.

“Ashton is a very versatile player,” said her coach at Marian, Dan Murray. “She has the ability to post up and she also has an excellent jump shot, with great range, and a quick release.”

- Lauren Prochaska, 5’8” freshman guard from Trinity H.S in Chicago. Prochaska scored 1,268 points at Trinity and is the school’s all-time leader in assists (424) and steals (371). She averaged 17.1 ppg, 4.0 apg, and 3.5 spg at Trinity. She was an Associated Press All-State Honorable Mention selection her senior year.

“Lauren dominates the game on offense and defense,” said her coach at Trinity, Eddie Stritzel. “Her speed and quickness set her apart from others [at Trinity], but it is her tenacity and will to win that truly make her special.”

- Meghan Waldron, 5’11” freshman guard from Wheaton Warrenville South in Wheaton, Ill. Waldron averaged 22.0 ppg and 9.0 rpg her senior year. She scored a school-record 1,948 career points. She is Warrenville South’s all-time leader in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. She was named Associated Press First Team All-State.

“Meghan is a player that would much rather have her teammates be successful than any personal stats,” said her high school coach, Robert Kroehnke. “She wants to get better each day, and she will put in the time to get better.”

Baseline Passes

The bloodline for assists at DePaul starts with Bruno, who led the 1972 DePaul men’s team in assists. As the women’s coach, his teams since 2004 have ranked in the top 20 in assists per game in the nation every year except 2009. The 2004 team (26-5) was ranked No. 1 at 19.2 apg.

History writes itself. And in DePaul’s case that writing is literally on the wall.

In the hallway outside Bruno’s office resides the DePaul Wall of Fame, a wall that, in part, depicts in pictures and text the history of DePaul women’s basketball. And while no team should live in the past, it would serve this year’s team well to visit not only the recent past of the 2013 season but also the 2005 and 2010 seasons for guidance in determining what it needs to do to go deep in the NCAA Tournament this year.

Causation can be difficult to determine, correlation less so. But the number of assists and where DePaul finishes has a strong correlation.

The 2005 and 2010 teams also reached the Sweet 16. And like the 2013 team, they also won at least 27 games. But here seems to be the key to setting those types of seasons in motion: The 2005 team (27-7) averaged 18.5 apg, No. 3 in the country. The 2010 team (29-7) averaged 17.6 apg, No. 7 in the country. The 2013 team averaged 19.6 apg, No. 3 in the country.

As DePaul chases its 13th consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, that key may or may not be easy to replicate this year. But Hrynko, coming into this season No. 2 all-time at DePaul in assists with 495, knows how to replicate it.

“Coach [Bruno] always talks about if the player is open, give them the ball. And if that player is not open, then somebody else is open. It’s just measuring twice and passing once.”

And ultimately, giving the ball away.

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