It may be true that "difficulty" is the only excuse history never accepts, and DePaul greets and accepts that word each and every season.
"[Fearlessness] starts at the top with the players," DePaul head coach Doug Bruno said after a recent practice. "Chanise Jenkins and Megan Podkowa were special collegiate players. And I think the schedule we play. The reason you play a difficult schedule is because then the players have seen the best that there is. And after that, there is nothing to be afraid of."
DePaul played nine teams in the regular season that qualified for the NCAA Championship; it beat four Top 25 teams (Texas A&M, Northwestern, Seton Hall, and Louisville) on the road; it played three of the four NCAA Championship No. 1 seeds (Baylor, Notre Dame, and UConn) during the regular season; and it set a school record by winning 11 straight road games.
The Blue Demons, led by Jenkins' 14.5 ppg average, Jessica January's 14.1 ppg, and Podkowa's 13.6 ppg, scored 90+ points nine times last season; were No. 3 in the country in assist/turnover ratio at 1.60, behind UConn and Villanova; and No. 2 in assists per game at 20.7. DePaul finished sixth in the country in scoring at 80.9 ppg despite playing six teams that finished in the top 50 in the country in scoring defense.
DePaul's 746 assists set a school-record and was third in the country; Jenkins, Podkowa, and January, combined for 502 of them. The Blue Demons joined UConn and Baylor as the only teams to have 700+ assists last season.
"The essence to me of basketball is sharing the ball," Bruno said during last season's NCAA Championship. "The best teams, year in and year out- at any level- are sharing teams. It is something we create as a culture. The [visual athleticism] is something we recruit, players that have the ability to pass. [Our players] are going to hit the open woman with precision, on touch, on time, and on target. So if there is one thing we pound into our players, it is that this whole sport is about sharing the ball."
The Blue Demons finished second in school history in average assists per game at 20.7, just behind the 2014 team at 20.8, and second in school history in field goals made at 1,125 and in three-point field goals made at 321. They finished third in school history in points scored at 2,913 and in rebounds with 1,417. They tied the 2010 and 2013 squads at 36 for most games played in a season.
Bruno is 614-318 at DePaul and his teams have won 20+ games in 13 of the last 14 years. He won his 600th game with a 61-54 win at Butler, a fitting location given Hinkle Fieldhouse's rich and storied tradition. He was named Big East Coach of the Year and was a finalist for WBCA Coach of the Year last season.
Bruno said early last season that there are three levels to growing a team: learning how to win; learning how to handle winning; and learning how to grow themselves while winning.
That triad proved targeted, timely, and terrific as last year's season progressed.
DePaul started with a pre-season WNIT first round 105-61 win versus Southern Illinois, placing five players in double figures. The Blue Demons then polished off NCAA Championship-qualifiers St. Bonaventure and Indiana before losing to then-No. 4 Baylor 86-72 in the title game. DePaul was down two points to the Bears after one quarter of play and played Baylor even in the fourth quarter. Baylor finished the season No. 16 in the country in scoring defense at 53.6 ppg. Jenkins and Podkowa were named to the All-Tournament Team.
The Blue Demons beat Colgate 96-46 behind a season-high 54 points from the bench, including 15 from Amarah Coleman, 14 from Jacqui Grant, and 13 from Ashton Millender.
An 86-70 loss to No. 1 UConn at home followed, with the Huskies pulling away in the last eight minutes of the game. UConn finished the season first in scoring defense at 48.3 ppg.
A trip to South Bend resulted in a 95-90 loss to then-No. 3 Notre Dame, the second-highest opponent point total given up by the Irish last season. DePaul outscored the Irish 51-30 in the second half. Jenkins scored a team-high 21 points to lead four DePaul players in double figures. The Blue Demons trailed just 94-88 with 2:19 to play.
Baylor, UConn, and Notre Dame had an average combined scoring margin of +27.5 versus opponents; DePaul lost to those three teams by an average margin of just 11.6 points.
Three days after the Notre Dame loss it was off to College Station, Texas, to play then-No. 15 Texas A&M for the third time in three years. Podkowa scored 20 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, Jenkins added 15 points, Grant added 13 points,and January scored 11 points and distributed 13 of DePaul's 29 assists as the Blue Demons beat the Aggies 80-66. January's assist/turnover ratio (13/3) for the game was a staggering 4.33.
The Blue Demons sustained an 88-79 loss at South Dakota State despite a game-high 22 points from Jenkins and 21 points and 11 boards from Podkowa. Millender shot just 1-4, all three-point attempts, from the field in that game. The sophomore could not have guessed at that time that there would be a dramatic reversal of her field goal performance later in the season, 680 miles southeast of Brookings, South Dakota.
DePaul then traveled to then-No. 12 Northwestern in mid-December, and Podkowa unleashed 27 points and 14 rebounds as the Blue Demons won 77-64. DePaul notched 25 assists on its 30 field goals, jumped out to an 18-8 lead, and led for 39:06 of the game.
The Blue Demons opened conference play versus Marquette, beating the Golden Eagles 91-86 at home. Jenkins scored 25 points and January added 21. Neither of the two could have guessed at that time how entwined with Millender they would eventually become.
January notched the first triple-double (13 points, 10 boards, and 10 assists) at DePaul since Diana Vines did it on January 24, 1998, as DePaul beat then-No. 25 Seton Hall 86-74.
DePaul lost to Seton Hall at home in late January in a game that was decided by 10 minutes of play. The Pirates jumped out to a 21-6 lead at the end of one quarter before DePaul outscored Seton Hall 68-62 over the final three quarters.
The Blue Demons avenged an earlier 64-60 home loss to Villanova by whipping the Wildcats 75-47 at The Pavilion. DePaul had a 2.71 assist/turnover ratio (19/7). Villanova finished the season second in the country in assist/turnover ratio at 1.81, just behind UConn's 1.82, but was 1.00 (12/12) versus DePaul.
DePaul won 80-66 at Georgetown with Jenkins' school-record 10 three-pointers tying her for the Big East single game record set by UConn's Maya Moore in 2009. Podkowa added 26 points, and she and Jenkins shot a combined 70 percent (21-30) from the field.
The Blue Demons closed out Big East play by crushing Marquette 98-65. DePaul shot a season-high 56.9 percent (41-72) from the field, 50.0 percent (13-26) from three-point range, and held Marquette to 14.8 percent (4-27) from behind the arc.
DePaul was upset by St. John's 75-66 in the Big East tournament semi-finals. Millender led DePaul with 15 points while Jenkins added 14 and Podkowa and Grant 13 each. DePaul won 16 of its last 18 regular season conference games.
DePaul's season (27-9, 16-2) ended with an 83-71 loss to No. 2 seed and Final Four participant Oregon State. DePaul had closed to 66-58 on a three-point play by Brooke Schulte with 7:51 to play. Schulte played perhaps her best all-around game last season versus Oregon State, scoring nine points on 4-8 field goal shooting to go along with seven rebounds, three assists, and no turnovers in 26 minutes of play. Schulte was named to the All-Big East team this season. The Beavers finished the season seventh in the country in lowest points allowed per game at 51.9. DePaul's season ended for the second straight year with a loss to a Final Four participant.
Baylor, UConn, Notre Dame, and Oregon State had a combined record of 139-9 last season.
DePaul enters this season one of just six teams to have qualified for the NCAA Championship the past 14 straight years, and starts play with exhibition games at home versus St. Xavier at November 1 and St. Francis on Nov. 4.
The Blue Demons open regular season play on Nov. 11-12 at McGrath-Phillips Arena as they host the Maggie Dixon Classic. The other three teams in the tournament are Appalachian State (10-20, 7-13 Sun Belt), Gardner Webb (19-12, 13-7 Big South), and University of Alabama at Birmingham (15-16, 7-11 Conference USA). DePaul plays Appalachian State on Nov. 11.
And then comes the "difficulty" portion, starting in mid-November at home and ending in mid-December at home.
The Blue Demons host Northwestern on Nov. 19.
DePaul travels to Germain Arena in Estero, Fla., to play in the Gulf Coast Showcase from Nov. 25-27. The other participants are Baylor, Florida Gulf Coast, George Washington, Kent State, Ohio State, Syracuse, and Western Kentucky. In the NCAA Championship last year, Syracuse advanced to the title game, Baylor to the Elite Eight, DePaul and Ohio State each to the Sweet 16, and George Washington played in the first round. Florida Gulf Coast was second in the country last year in scoring defense at 50.0 ppg and Ohio State was third in the country last year in ppg at 86.0. The Blue Demons play Western Kentucky in opening round play on Nov. 25. DePaul then plays Baylor or Kent State on Nov. 26 and one of the four remaining teams on Nov. 27.
The Blue Demons travel to Storrs, Connecticut, on Dec. 1 to play 11-time and defending NCAA Champion, Connecticut (38-0, 18-0 AAC). The game will be broadcast on SNY.
DePaul entertains long-time rival Notre Dame (32-2, 15-0 ACC) on Dec. 10.
The road then veers east to Philadelphia with a game versus Temple (23-12, 13-5 AAC) on Dec. 15.
Five days later DePaul plays Tennessee-Martin (22-10, 14-2 Ohio Valley Conference) at home.
"Coach pushes us to be the best we can be, and to never strive to be anything greater than that," Schulte said after a recent practice. "You can't go into a game being afraid of execution. You just have to go and play- you can't think. We all came to do one thing, and that is play our hardest at the game we love."
The Blue Demons open Big East play on the road at Georgetown on Dec. 28 and play at Villanova on Dec. 30. Every DePaul conference game that is not televised nationally will be broadcast on the Big East Digital Network within the mobile app, FOX Sports GO. DePaul closes out conference play by hosting Villanova on Feb. 24, and on Senior Day, Georgetown on Feb. 26.
DePaul finished second in the Academic National Tournament after winning three Inside Higher Ed titles. The team was recognized with a Public Recognition Award from the NCAA for having a multi-year Academic Performance Rate in the top 10 percent in its sport, the eleventh straight year the program has been recognized for that achievement.
The Blue Demons had 11 student-athletes named to the Big East All-Academic Team. January was named the I-AAA Women's Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year and Podkowa also earned a spot on the I-AAA Scholar-Athlete Team.
DePaul finished No. 21 in the WBCA Academic Top 25 Team Honor Roll, and its team GPA of 3.470 was just .004 behind No. 20 Harvard. DePaul was one of two schools (St. Bonaventure) to participate in the NCAA Championship and appear in the WBCA poll. DePaul has been honored in 10 of the last 11 WBCA polls, with six Top 10 finishes since 2005.
Friendship is fine in theory, but action defines the concept.
"Coach Bruno is a big factor [in why this team is so close]," Schulte said. "He has us live together, with four women to a room. We are with our teammates all the time day in and day out. And it's not just on the court. He recruits great people and we get along with everybody. I can turn to any one of my teammates and they are like sisters to me."
Seniors Jenkins and Podkowa had been through much together while at DePaul: three straight Big East regular season titles; two Big East tournament titles; and four straight NCAA Championship berths.
"I cherished every single moment with my teammates and I could not thank them enough for the amazing five years I have had at DePaul," Jenkins said after the Oregon State loss.
Podkowa was asked after the Oregon State loss about her difficult night offensively in that game. She began to answer, but emotion, too much for her to carry at the time, interceded.
But there was Jenkins- resolutely, earnestly, and passionately- finishing what Podkowa could not.
"I think she was focused," Jenkins said. "Megan did a great job playing defense. She had a hard match-up. And as coach said, we all left it out on the floor and the reason we're crying is we can't come back with the team next year, we're going to really miss this team, and Megan should never feel like she played any part in this loss."
DePaul has had 16 players named AP All-America since 1994, with Jenkins in that group for her performance last season. Jenkins was named the Big East Player of the Year last season, led DePaul in points scored, three-point field goals, and tied for her team's lead in free throw percentage. She was in the top 10 in six conference categories.
Podkowa was named the espnW Player of the Week, in part for her performance in the Texas A&M game. She was a CoSIDA Academic All-America Second Team selection. Podkowa finished No. 22 in Division I in field goal percentage at 55.2 percent last season. She was third in the Big East in rebounds per game at 7.8.
Jenkins and Podkowa accounted for 34 percent of DePaul's scoring, 28 percent of its rebounding, and 39 percent of its assists last season.
January led the team with 211 assists, tenth among Division I players. She averaged a team-high 29.8 minutes per game. January was named to the Dallas Region All-Tournament Team, averaging 21.0 ppg in the three NCAA Championship games. She was named the Big East Preseason Player of the Year of the Year this season. January is the conference's active career leader in assists at 425 and steals at 199.
"We were so close together [last season], and there was no need for drama," Grant said after a recent practice. "We are always together and we always have a good time. It is something you don't see very often, and the chemistry on this team is amazing."
DePaul adds the following recruits for this season:
- Kelly Campbell, 5-foot-10 guard from Saint John Vianney HS in Holmdel, NJ. The Lancers finished the year 31-1 and were ranked No. 17 in the country in espnW's final rankings. Campbell averaged 13.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.8 apg, and 3.5 spg in her career there. She shot 38.8 percent from three-point range and 85 percent from the line her senior year.
"[Campbell] is what every great point guard should be: a great ball handler, passer, shooter, and most importantly, a leader," Lancers' coach Dawn Karpell said. "She has a great understanding of the game and has the ability to make those around her better. She is a tremendous worker, a great teammate, and the definition of a student-athlete."
- Claire McMahon, 6-foot-1 guard from Lincoln-Way East HS in Frankfort, Ill. She scored over 1,200 points in her prep career. McMahon averaged 16.7 ppg, 6.5 rpg, and 4.5 apg over four games, and was named Most Valuable Player as the Griffins won the Medieval Classic last December.
"She was a match-up nightmare for teams all season with her inside-outside game," Lincoln-Way East coach James Martin said. "Her greatest asset is spreading the wealth in the assist game. She loves to get her teammates involved, and she is a true team player."
- Chante Stonewall, 6-foot-1 forward from University HS in Normal, Ill. She missed her senior year due to a torn ACL. She averaged 14.6 ppg and 7.5 rpg as a junior. In junior high she won the state title in the hurdles, placed second in the 400 meter run, and placed fourth in the long jump.
"She is a hard worker and the ultimate competitor," Normal High coach Laura Sellers said. "She can shoot from the outside, beat a defender off the dribble, or post up anyone on the block. She has court vision like a point guard and has basketball IQ like a coach."
- Deja Cage, 5-foot-7 guard from Morgan Park HS in Chicago. Cage battled a knee injury during her sophomore year at Fenwick HS, but bounced back to lead the team in scoring her junior year there. She averaged 20.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.1 apg, and shot 52 percent from the floor her senior year at Morgan Park.
"The difference from last year is that last year we only had one freshman," January said after a recent practice. "This year is a different look in that we have four players who have never played college basketball, but they have already picked up things so quickly, so it is just a matter of catching up to speed."
"Having leaders like Chanise Jenkins and Megan Podkowa really helped us [with being fearless] especially in the post-season," January said. "Having their leadership and how well they played made it really easy for everyone else to do well."
If one characteristic of a successful sports team is "everybody doing what they are supposed to be doing when they are supposed to be doing it," DePaul fit that to a "T" last season, and to a "JMU" in round one of the NCAA Championship.
No. 11 seed James Madison finished No. 2 in country in rpg at 46.2, No. 15 in rebounding margin at +9.9, and No. 23 in scoring defense at 55.4 ppg. None of those statistics found the floor against No. 6 seed DePaul at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville.
DePaul did not have the first or second highest scorer in the game, but what it did have was an attack in waves, grabbing a season-high 55 rebounds, and shooting a season-high three-point field goal percentage of 52.4 percent (11-21), in beating the Dukes 97-67.
Every player on the DePaul roster saw playing time and each one had at least one rebound, with Mart'e Grays coming off the bench for her first career double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds. Eleven out of the 12 players on the roster scored, with January notching 18 points, Grant 15, and Podkowa and Schulte 10 each. The Blue Demons led by 35 points with 8:01 to play and had an assist/turnover ratio of 2.0 (24/12) for the game.
The 6-foot-2 Grays is out this season with an Achilles tendon injury. She averaged 4.7 rebounds in DePaul's final 14 games of last season, and she averaged 11.7 ppg in DePaul's three-game Sweet 16 run, including 14 points versus Oregon State.
DePaul's bench scored 800 points for the season, and the JMU game was a microcosm of that production as Millender scored 10 points and grabbed six boards, Tanita Allen had seven points, Lauren Prochaska four points and three rebounds, and Coleman two points and two boards off the bench.
No. 3 seed Louisville finished ACC play at 15-1, its sole conference home loss a 66-61 defeat to Notre Dame. The only other home loss the Cardinals sustained in the regular season was 75-71 defeat in their season opener versus California. Louisville had beaten its 10 other home opponents by an average of 22.5 ppg, including an 87-60 win versus Central Arkansas in Friday's first round NCAA Championship game.
The KFC Yum! Center was quiet after the DePaul and Louisville games, resting its steel and concrete after 184 combined points by the Cardinals and the Blue Demons, and in preparation for- at least for the hopes of the Louisville citizenry- another home thrashing and the opportunity to advance to the Sweet 16 come Sunday.
But January, Jenkins, Millender, and their teammates were also resting.
On the interim Saturday, Bruno and Louisville coach Jeff Walz shared humorous stories about when both were part of the Big East. But the sense from their other comments that day was one of confidence mixed with an acknowledgement of how good the other team was.
"You have got to get your kids in a fearless place and they have got come out and play to the best of their ability," Bruno said on that Saturday.
One statistic that nobody, justifiably, could have foreseen at that time as being anything than just another number was Louisville's season scoring average of 72.2 ppg. It was a number that would loom large in the next 40 minutes.
DePaul started the Louisville game with a turnover and fell behind 7-0 just two minutes into the game, and suddenly 72.2 was perhaps on the low side.
"At that first timeout, Coach Bruno was telling us we weren't rebounding, we weren't defending, and those were the little things that were going to help us win the game," Podkowa said after the game.
But six points from January, a free throw from Grays, and Podkowa's three-pointer gave DePaul its first lead at 10-9 three minutes later. Schulte's three-pointer ended DePaul's run and gave the Blue Demons a 13-9 lead with 3:32 left in the first quarter.
Podkowa picked up her third foul at 6:07 of the second quarter and DePaul leading 27-23, before Asia Durr's jumper pulled the Cardinals to within 27-25.
Nerves can be expected for a young player in an NCAA Championship game, but Millender dispelled that theory for her with seven points versus Minnesota in DePaul's NCAA Championship first round win in 2014.
And there was Millender this year, following Durr's jumper with a three-pointer.
Briahanna Jackson's lay up with 4:27 to play in the third quarter brought Louisville to within 53-49.
Millender with another three-pointer.
Durr's three-pointer cut DePaul's lead to 65-58 with 8:19 left in the game.
Jackson's jumper narrowed DePaul's lead to 67-65 with 5:22 to play.
Millender finished the game 5-5 from the field including 2-2 from behind the arc.
"It's about stepping up in the big moments," Millender said after a recent practice. "I knew Louisville was a big game. It's being fearless, but also having the confidence to knock down the shots. We knew [Louisville] was going to try and bring me off the [three-point] line, so coach Bruno said I had the three-point shot or a pump fake and one dribble."
Louisville did get to 72 points on Jackson's layup with fifteen seconds to play to tie the score, but then January, who had 24 points up to that point on 10-17 shooting from the field, and then Jenkins, who had 12 points, played their hands. And their feet.
January was fouled by Jackson with 14 seconds to play. Her first free throw grazed the front of the rim, and suddenly, being fearless came without any other choice. January made her second free throw for a 73-72 DePaul lead. Louisville then had one last attempt to get past 72 points and past DePaul.
And the Cardinals may well have gotten past those two things if they could have gotten past Jenkins. No.
Louisville went to what it had gone to many times last season- Myisha Hines-Allen. The ACC Player of the Year received the ball just inside the free throw line with just over two seconds to play. She started to drive to her right, but there was Jenkins, sliding to her left and picking up the charge, picking up her teammates, and leaving the scoreboard unchanged for the final 1.7 seconds.
"When you play teams that have their names known, like UConn or Notre Dame, sometimes they are known for their names, and sometimes when people go into games they think about that instead of just playing the human being that you are playing on the court," January said after a recent practice. "That was a big factor in the Louisville game. We went in there with the mindset of playing DePaul Ball, and we did that."
Memory is a unique function in that humans are the sum of what they remember and are at the mercy of what they forget.
January said that her most vivid memory of last season was DePaul's ability to play well on the road, with the Blue Demons accumulating a 12-3 record away from home.
And for the Blue Demons to reach their 15th straight NCAA Championship, they won't have to remember their win versus Texas A&M; their closely played game versus UConn; their furious finish against Notre Dame; or their win versus Louisville.
But there is one thing they can't forget.
"You can either fear failure or desire success," Bruno said.
"I can't coach scared."