But that march from November through March began with leadenness and transitioned to lightness.
DePaul was tied with No. 5 Texas A&M with under three minutes to play in the season opener, but lost 76-68. The Blue Demons shot a season-low 19.2 percent (5-26) from 3-point range in the game.
A double overtime loss to Northwestern followed the A&M game, but the biggest burden DePaul felt all year was a 94-93 overtime loss to No. 5 Notre Dame at home on Dec. 10. The Blue Demons shot 0-6 from the free throw line in the last 20 seconds of regulation. DePaul coach Doug Bruno said after the game that he had never seen, in his 40 years of coaching, such poor free throw shooting. DePaul shot 3-10 from the line in overtime and 12-29 (41 percent) for the game. The Blue Demons shot 66.7 percent from the line for the year.
But what was rough for the team turned into something even rougher for the players as DePaul lost guard Megan Rogowski to a torn ACL, 14 games in to the season, during a 79-76 loss at Villanova. The Blue Demons’ record stood at 9-5 after that game. Rogowski had averaged 12.4 ppg and was the team’s leading 3-point shooter at 42.4 percent.
And any boost DePaul got from Brooke Schulte’s last second, game-tying free throws in regulation and Jessica January’s five points in overtime to help DePaul to an 84-75 win at St. John’s was followed two days later by the team’s worst point loss of the year, a 108-87 defeat at Seton Hall. The Pirates were led by Tabatha Richardson Smith’s 35 points.
DePaul later lost to Seton Hall 81-80 at home on a last-second shot by Ka-Deidre Simmons. Brittany Hrynko’s 29 points included a 3-pointer from the left corner to give DePaul the lead before Simmons’ shot. The Blue Demons sank a school record 17 3-pointers in the game.
But weight can be reversed given enough time and, in basketball, enough effort as Villanova and Seton Hall learned later in the season.
DePaul won 10 of its last 11 regular season games, something DePaul guard Chanise Jenkins attributed to “buckling down and focusing.”
The Blue Demons entered the Big East tournament the No. 2 seed behind Seton Hall. DePaul dispatched Xavier 87-53, a team it had beaten 84-61 and 87-63 during the regular season, in the quarterfinals.
Villanova was next. The game featured 15 lead changes, and Megan Podkowa’s 22 points and 10 rebounds, Hrynko’s 13 points, and Jenkins’ 11 points propelled the Blue Demons to a 58-55 win and to the tournament final versus Seton Hall.
The loss of Rogowski resulted in Centrese McGee moving into the starting lineup. And if McGee was feeling any added weight that came with starting, it was absent versus the Pirates. McGee shot 3-3 from 3-point range for a 31-19 first half DePaul lead. Podkowa scored 19 points, Jenkins added 16 and a team-high seven rebounds, and Hrynko notched 12 points and a game-high nine assists as DePaul won 78-68. Podkowa was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and Jenkins was selected to the All-Tournament team. Richardson Smith was held to six points on 3-8 shooting from the field.
The lead had been shed.
DePaul received an automatic NCAA tournament bid and was sent to South Bend as the No. 9 seed. The Blue Demons drew No. 7 seed Minnesota, and a different type of weight in the Golden Gophers’ 6-foot-6 Amanda Zahui B., the best post player in the country.
Zahui B. had the game’s only double-double with 21 points and 22 points, but DePaul brought a counterweight with its pressure defense, forcing a school NCAA tournament-record 28 turnovers. Podkowa scored 23 points, Jenkins added 16, Schulte notched 13 points off the bench, and Hrynko added 10 points and a team-high six assists as DePaul came from 15 points down with 17:10 to play for a 79-72 win.
DePaul could not overcome No. 1 seed Notre Dame’s inside game as the Irish won the board battle, 51-32, in a 79-67 round two win in South Bend. Podkowa led four DePaul players in double figures with 19 points.
Seven of DePaul’s eight losses were to teams ranked in the final Associated Press poll.
The Blue Demons finished No. 3 in the country in the Women’s College Basketball Coaches Association Team Academic Poll with a team GPA of 3.622. DePaul was declared the winner over Wisconsin Green Bay in Inside Higher Ed’s NCAA academic bracket title.
DePaul was No. 2 in the nation in scoring at 86.0 ppg, No. 2 in steals at 12.5, No. 3 in assists per game at 19.8, and No. 3 in assist/turnover ratio at 1.80. The Blue Demons led the Big East in scoring, scoring margin, field goal percentage, assists, steals, turnover margin, and 3-pointers. They sank a school record 364 3-pointers, surpassing the 2013 squad’s 314.
It is never easy to lose weight, and DePaul has lost tonnage with the graduation of Hrynko and Rogowski.
Hrynko was an Associated Press Honorable Mention All-America selection last year. She had four 30-point plus games and 12 20-point plus games last year. She is DePaul’s all-time leader in games played at 138, is the school’s all-time assist leader, and is fourth all-time in scoring. She is one of nine players to be named Big East Player of the Week five or more times in a single season, and the first since Connecticut’s Maya Moore in 2010. She averaged 19.1 ppg. She was selected the BIG EAST’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Hrynko was picked No. 19 pick in this year’s WNBA draft.
Rogowski’s 243 3-pointers ranks third all-time at DePaul. Her career 3-point shooting percentage of 39.1 ranks fourth all-time. She scored 1,144 points at DePaul.
- Chanise Jenkins, 5-foot-5 senior guard. Big East Second-Team selection last year. Averaged 12.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, and was second on the team in assists with 159. Led the team in assist/turnover ratio at 2.40.
- Megan Podkowa, 6-foot-2 senior forward. Also a conference Second-Team selection. Averaged 14.2 ppg and led team with 6.4 rpg. Shot 58.4 percent (31-53) from the field in DePaul’s last four games. Shot 52.6 percent from the field for the year.
- Jessica January, 5-foot-7 junior guard. Big East Honorable Mention selection. Averaged 11.6 ppg and was third on the team in assists with 130.
- Brooke Schulte, 5-foot-9 junior guard. Averaged 7.9 ppg, was second on the team in rebounds at 4.9 per game, and shot 49.5 percent from the field.
- Brandi Harvey-Carr, 6-foot-4 junior forward. Averaged 3.7 ppg and 3.7 rpg. Career-highs of 14 points, 13 rebounds, and four assists came against Illinois State.
- Mart’e Grays, 6-foot-2 sophomore forward. All-Freshman conference selection. Averaged 5.9 ppg and 2.9 rpg. Season-highs of 16 points and eight rebounds.
- Ashton Millender, 5-foot-8 sophomore guard. Averaged 2.6 ppg and 1.4 rpg. Played 14 minutes in the Minnesota game.
- Lauren Prochaska, 5-foot-8 sophomore guard. Averaged 1.0 ppg. Was seventh on team with 22 assists despite playing a team-low 212 minutes.
- Meri Bennett-Swanson, 6-foot-3 redshirt sophomore forward. Did not play last year.
- Elri Liebenberg, 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman forward. Did not play last year.
- Meghan Waldron, 5-foot-11 redshirt freshman guard. Did not play last year.
- Tanita Allen, 5-foot-10 freshman guard. Averaged 12.8 ppg and 9.5 rpg last year for Whitney Young High School. Led Young to the Illinois state title in 2013.
DePaul adds two transfers this year, both from the University of Illinois. Both will sit out this year due to NCAA transfer rules:
- Jacqui Grant, 6-foot-3 junior forward. Her 61 blocks in two years is No. 15 all-time at Illinois. Averaged 9.5 ppg and 6.8 rpg last year. Had 15 rebounds in a win versus No. 17 Iowa. Scored 29 points versus Minnesota.
- Amarah Coleman, 5-foot-11 sophomore guard. Averaged 7.1 ppg and 2.1 rpg last year. Scored 24 points versus No. 8 Maryland.
DePaul opens this season with two exhibition games at McGrath-Phillips Arena. The Blue Demons play St. Xavier on Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. CT and Lewis on Nov. 7 at 3:30 p.m.
The regular season opens with the preseason WNIT. DePaul plays Southern Illinois on Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. and then St. Bonaventure or Siena on Nov. 15 at 4 p.m. Both games will be played at McGrath-Phillips Arena.
The preseason WNIT is played from Nov. 13-22. This year’s 16-team field had a combined record of 326-189 last year and includes perennial power, Baylor.
DePaul enters December with its toughest stretch of the season, playing 10-time national champion and three-time defending national champion Connecticut (38-1 last year) at McGrath-Phillips Arena on Dec. 2 at 6:30 p.m. The game will be televised on Fox Sports 1. The Blue Demons then play at Notre Dame (36-3, national title runner-up) on Dec. 9; at Texas A&M (23-10, NCAA tournament qualifier) on Dec. 12; at South Dakota State (24-9, NCAA tournament qualifier) on Dec. 15; and at Northwestern (23-9, NCAA tournament qualifier) on Dec. 19.
“There are three possibilities [in that stretch],” said Bruno after a recent practice. “We win them all and we will be No. 1; we split them and we’ll be a top 15 team; lose them all, and we will be really prepared for the Big East. “
This will be the third straight year, and the fourth time since 2005, that DePaul has played Connecticut, Notre Dame, and Texas A&M in one season.
DePaul has been selected as the preseason favorite in the Big East coaches’ poll for the third consecutive year. The Blue Demons begin the defense of their Big East title versus Marquette at home on Dec. 29 at 7 p.m.
Bruno is quick to remind people that DePaul never plays on its home court when his team plays at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, Ill. There won’t be any reminding this year as DePaul hosts the Big East tournament at McGrath-Phillips Arena on its Lincoln Park campus on March 5-8. This is the first year the tournament has been held at an on-campus location since 2003.
DePaul has ranked among the Top 50 of all NCAA Division I teams in attendance in each of the past five years, including the 2011 season when its total attendance surpassed 50,000. DePaul has led the conference in attendance since the Big East was reconfigured prior to the 2013 season.
The Blue Demons are 189-31 (85.9 percent) all-time at McGrath-Phillips Arena. And since joining the Big East in 2005, DePaul is 66-17 (79.5 percent) in conference games played there.
DePaul has had a slew of excellent post players in its history, with Amy Lundquist, Khara Smith, Natasha Williams, Felicia Chester, and Katherine Harry as examples. But Bruno points out that “the game is changing because big players have guard skills. And because of that, it looks like there is a lack of post play, but there really is not a lack of post play.”
Grays exemplifies this concept, shooting 30.8 percent (24-78) from 3-point range while finishing sixth on the team in blocked shots with 27. She had eight games of double-digit scoring.
But Bruno’s success at DePaul (587-309 in 29 years) has come predominantly from a guard-driven, up-tempo offense, with recent years no different.
The Blue Demons scored 10,802 points the past four seasons, with the guards scoring 6,805 (62.9 percent) of those points. The guards scored 73.4 percent of last season’s 3,010 points.
That recent DePaul practice had Bruno using eight players due to an injury-shortened roster. Waldron has undergone left foot surgery and will not play this year; Prochaska is out for one more week with a foot injury; and Allen has been out.
Bruno said Millender has gotten better, that the team misses Prochaska badly, and that Allen is in the mix for playing time this year. Millender scored a season-high 12 points versus Georgetown last year, but her basketball maturity reached its apex versus Minnesota, when she scored seven points and had two assists. Prochaska said that she had been “trying to work more on an offensive game and becoming more of an offensive threat.”
DePaul has, in both Jenkins and Podkowa, amplitude and magnitude. Jenkins is as good as any point guard in the country, and Podkowa’s inside/outside scoring ability helped make her one of the Big East’s better players last year. Both players are unanimous selections to this year’s preseason All-Conference team.
Podkowa said that this year she needs to be better in rebounding, blocking shots, help-side defense, and being more aggressive in finishing around the basket.
Jenkins, Podkowa, and January have been named this year’s captains.
But how DePaul further closes the gap of the loss of Hrynko and Rogowski and opens the gate for a chance at a third straight Big East title and a school-record fourteenth straight NCAA tournament bid may hinge on the play of January and Schulte.
January was selected to the Maggie Dixon Classic All-Tournament team, scoring 24 points in the A&M game. She started all 35 games. She scored in double figures in nine of the first 11 games and had a streak of six straight games scoring in double figures starting with the loss at Villanova. But, partly due to injury, she scored in double figures twice in the last nine games. She led DePaul in scoring in six games, rebounding in four games, and assists in five games. She might be DePaul’s best mid-range player. January is now healthy and her learning process from the injury process has made her stronger mentally.
“It’s hard for any player to come back from an injury, but we have had really good spring and summer sessions and I had a lot of rest and recovery time,” said January. “The mental part [of coming back from an injury is the hardest part]. While I was out and not playing, I practiced in my mind and watch the players and the practices and I asked myself what would I do in a situation.”
Schulte returned slowly from a torn ACL, scoring in double figures once in the first 15 games. But she scored in double figures in five of the last nine games. She shot 46.8 percent from the field in the last six games. She was second on the team in double-doubles behind Jenkins and Podkowa.
She said that her strong finish was due to “keeping confidence in myself, and a big part was my teammates giving me a lot of confidence and me having a good support system throughout the year.” Schulte sees her goals this year as doing “the little things like defending, rebounding, and making myself an accessible player offensively and defensively, and to help take the pressure off of Chanise, Megan, and Jessica.”
Hrynko scored a single game career-high 38 points at DePaul; Rogowski a career-high 30. Those types of scoring outbursts appear unlikely from this year’s team. But subdividing large numbers is something this year’s team should do well. And it is one of the senior captains, not surprisingly the point guard Jenkins, who sees the whole court concerning the team and what it has to do to measure up to three and 64 come March.
“It is not just me who has to step up, but the entire team.”