No. 23/18 DePaul played No. 1/1 UConn to a virtual draw for the first half, but eventually succumbed to the 10-time national champions 86-70 before a sold-out crowd at McGrath-Phillips Arena on Wednesday night.
UConn had outscored each of its four prior opponents by at least 40 points per game, but led only 44-41 at the half.
And while the Huskies remain women’s college basketball’s elite team, DePaul coach Bruno sees the greatest amount of parity in the rest of the field that he has seen in his 30 years at DePaul.
“I never once told our team [before the game] how we were going to beat UConn,” Bruno said. “I talked to the team before the game about how tonight is a chance for you to prove that you can be one of the three teams [other than UConn] that can fight your way to Indianapolis [and the Final Four]. And that is the goal.”
DePaul (5-2) almost changed history with lighting tonight. The Blue Demons last beat the Huskies, 70-64, in the first-ever meeting between the two teams on Dec. 28, 1983. The two teams did not play again until for almost 32 years, until March 6, 2006, a 69-57 UConn win. They have played one another each year since 2006, first in the old Big East, and more recently, in non-conference competition.
UConn (5-0) came into this game with the No. 3 scoring defense in Division I at 47.5 There were 10 lead changes and three ties in the first half, with Chanise Jenkins’ 3-pointer at 4:58 of the second quarter giving DePaul a 39-37 lead. DePaul shot 48 percent from the field and 53 percent (9-17) in the first half. Tanita Allen’s layup was countered by Breanna Stewart’s (game-high 29 points) as the half ended.
DePaul had its seven game home win streak snapped tonight. It was UConn that also broke DePaul’s all-time longest home win streak (33 games from Dec. 19, 2003 - Jan. 25, 2006) and its second all-time win streak (27 games from Feb. 23, 2010 - Jan. 14, 2012).
The Blue Demons forced 14 turnovers and had seven steals in the first half. DePaul is No. 6 in the country at 13.8 steals per game.
“[DePaul] did a really good job in the first half of getting us to play the pace that they wanted to play,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “You end up doing the same things they are doing, but they are better at it because that is the way they play.”
And part of the way DePaul played tonight was a platoon system, with Bruno sending in a fresh five players roughly every four minutes.
“I thought we controlled the pace really well in the first half,” said DePaul’s Jessica January (team-high 18 points). “In the second half we had moments where we kind of dropped off and that hurt us.”
“We talked at the half about going into the game that we were well aware of how the game was going to be played, and how DePaul wants to play the game,” Auriemma said. “We talked about grabbing the game and bringing it back to a pace that we want to play at.”
And that pace was a different one than was played in the first half, a pace so entertaining that Auriemma said he was tempted to go into the stands to watch the game.
Stewart’s 3-point play was part of a 12-2 run and a 56-43 UConn lead with 5:45 left in the third quarter. Brooke Schulte’s (12 points) moved DePaul to within 57-48, and January’s 3-pointer closed the gap to 57-51 with 4:00 left in the quarter. Schulte’s 3-pointer with just over one minute to play cut the lead to 64-56.
DePaul’s leading scorer, Megan Podkowa (15.8 ppg), scored her first basket with 8:58 left in the game. She finished with four points while getting off just four shots.
Brandi Harvey-Carr’s layup cut the lead to 65-60 with 8:12 left in the game before UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson’s 3-pointer and Morgan Tuck’s layup made it 71-60 with 6:42 to play. The Huskies closed the game on a 21-10 run.
Bruno said after his team’s loss to No. 4/4 Baylor that he believes “coaches are hypocrites if they ask their kids to play fearless and then play a weak schedule.” There were no hypocrites on either side of the scorers table tonight: DePaul has played or will play five Top 25 teams in non-conference play, including three of top five (No. 1 UConn, No. 3 Notre Dame, and No. 4 Baylor). UConn also plays five of Top 25 non-conference teams, including No. 2 South Carolina and No. 3 Notre Dame.
Schulte said “we all went into the game fearless.”
The Blue Demons will need to continue being fearless as they enter the NCAA tournament part of their schedule in Dec., after hosting Illinois State this Sat. DePaul plays at Notre Dame on Dec., at No. 12/11 Texas A&M on Dec. 12, at South Dakota State on Dec. 15, and at No. 15/16 Northwestern on Dec. 19.
Long travel often leads to daydreaming in the down times. And if tonight’s play against a team that has won 42 straight games and three consecutive national titles was any indication, that daydreaming may include Indianapolis.