By Kevin Sweeney
It had the feeling of a different type of DePaul team.
A team that had struggled with blowing leads throughout the season held on when they faced adversity.
A team that had been beaten up on the glass just last week by this same Providence team was the aggressor on the interior and dominated the rebounding margin.
“Their frontcourt just manhandled our frontcourt,” Providence head coach Ed Cooley said.
That dominance on the inside lifted the Blue Demons to a 67-55 win Saturday afternoon over Providence at Wintrust Arena in front of a crowd of just over 5,000. DePaul was led by sophomore big man Paul Reed, who continued his dominance in Big East play with 18 points and 15 rebounds, including a huge 3-point play with 1:24 to go that sealed the win.
With four NBA team representatives on hand, Reed showed why he has perhaps the most upside of any player in the conference.
“I think the operative word is ‘potential’,” DePaul head coach Dave Leitao said on Reed. “If you ask anyone deep within our program… he’s got a really, really, really high ceiling.”
Cooley was very complimentary of Reed’s game, comparing him to former Syracuse great Hakim Warrick and calling Reed “an emerging superstar”. Still, he was frustrated with how “soft” his team played, especially on the inside.
“A Providence College team is always going to be tough. We’re always going to be physical,” Cooley said. “I just didn’t think we had that mentality today.”
The Blue Demons got off to a strong start on the defensive end, holding the Friars without a field goal for the final 7:54 of the first half to extend their lead to 10 at intermission. But PC came out energized in the opening stages of the second half, riding an assertive Alpha Diallo (15 points) and a strong performance from freshman guard David Duke (17 points) to quickly make things interesting. Less than three minutes into the second half, it was already a one possession game.
“I thought our guys were very resilient,” Leitao said. “We bent, but we never broke.”
“We had a team talk a couple days ago, and we said ‘this is it, it’s go time’,” senior guard Max Strus said postgame. “We’ve lost too many games in the second half where we blow our lead or teams extend theirs.”
It certainly seemed that Strus was fed up with his team’s inability to close games, and he set the tone in the closing minutes. After the Blue Demon lead was cut to two with under 3 minutes to play, Strus used a strong drive to the rim to score with the shot clock running down. He also hit a pair of huge threes to quell the Friar momentum in the earlier stages of the second half. The Lewis University transfer finished with 13 points and 7 rebounds.
The Blue Demons were finally able to pull away in the final minutes on a pair of old-fashioned 3-point plays by Olujobi and Reed, a fitting way to close out a game that they controlled on the inside.
DePaul moves into a tie for fifth place in the Big East at 4-6 on the season, a huge win for a team coming off three straight losses in a league where 1.5 games separates third place from tenth.
Meanwhile, it’s back to the drawing board for a Providence team that has struggled to put together consistent performances this season. The Friars fall to 3-6 in the conference, with hopes of an at-large bid melting away. But despite his frustration with his team’s performance today, Cooley seemed to still believe in his team’s chances as the season rolls into February.
“There’s a lot of basketball left to be played, and I’m pretty sure Providence College is going to have a lot to say when it’s all said and done.”