By Kevin Sweeney
DePaul went through most of the season with an eight-man rotation.
Just five of those players were left standing by the time the final buzzer sounded at McGrath-Phillips Arena Wednesday night.
First, starting point guard Devin Gage didn’t suit up due to a concussion.
Midway through the first half, star guard Eli Cain went down hard and appeared to injure his arm after being undercut on a rebound. He never left the locker room after suffering the injury.
Then late in the second, forward Jaylen Butz went down with an apparent shoulder injury.
That left behind just five: Lyrik Shreiner, Flynn Cameron, Max Strus, Paul Reed, and Femi Olujobi. The rest of the bench featured four players who have combined for 36 minutes of game action all season long.
“It was a war of attrition,” Dave Leitao said.
But thanks to the heroics of Reed and Strus, along with timely contributions from Shreiner and Cameron, five was all it took. The Blue Demons outlasted South Florida 100-96 in an overtime classic in game two of the best-of-three CBI Championship Series.
“Plain and simple, we won that for Eli,” Strus said. “We all love him and we had to do whatever it took to get that win.”
The lack of depth forced Leitao into some situations his team wasn’t accustomed to dealing with. Cameron played the most important minutes of his career, and the Blue Demons played zone most of the way with a 3-big lineup when Butz was on the floor.
“There were a lot of things we are doing now that we haven’t done all year long,” Leitao said. “We found a tremendous amount of resiliency throughout the game, particularly when they [USF] came back.”
Cameron’s contributions were particularly important. The freshman from New Zealand was composed under pressure, scoring nine points on 4-6 shooting without a turnover in a career-high 20 minutes of action. He scored a pair of buckets in overtime when being played out of necessity that helped the Blue Demons come away with a win.
Strus led the charge in the first half, exploding for 20 points on 6-8 from downtown. Meanwhile, after a hot start early, the Bulls struggled to find flow on the offensive end against the DePaul zone, turning the ball over nine times. Chief in those struggles was the play of USF’s usually-dynamic backcourt duo of David Collins and LaQuincy Rideau. The pair, which averages over 29 points per game on the season, posted a combined six points on 2-11 shooting with five turnovers in the first half. That allowed the Blue Demons to open up an 11-point lead going into the second half.
Rideau took matters into his own hands in the second period to will his team back into the game. The redshirt junior who began his career at Gardner-Webb was as dominant as they come as a floor general, going 5-5 from downtown in the second half while also dishing out five second-half assists. In total, Rideau finished with a career-high 35 points to go along with eight assists and five steals. Some of his best work was done setting up redshirt freshman Alexis Yetna, an impressive big man who posted one of the finest games of his young career with 26 points & 13 rebounds on 11-12 shooting. That duo’s eruption allowed the Bulls to chip away at the deficit, finally taking the lead on a dunk by Collins with 3:05 to go.
But DePaul was resilient, fighting back to take the lead before eventually seeing the game go to overtime. With the South Florida defense keying in on Strus, it was Reed that took over for the Blue Demons in the second half. The rising star sophomore finished with 28 points, 16 rebounds, three steals, and three blocks, absolutely dominating the game in the second half and overtime with his length and inside-outside game.
“He is growing right in front of our eyes into becoming a potentially tremendous college basketball player,” Leitao said. “We called a play late for him late, and he didn’t even get the ball. That was the only time today that we called his number. To get 28 and 16 and you’re not getting fed the ball every other time down the court, it says a lot about his level of talent.”
After USF briefly took the lead to begin the extra session, DePaul quickly took over. The Blue Demons used a pair of 6-0 runs to gain some separation while the Bulls struggled to finish around the rim, extending their lead to eight with 43 seconds to play. Despite a technical foul assessed to Leitao that breathed some life into USF and allowed the Bulls to narrow the deficit to three on multiple occasions in the final minute, DePaul was able to hold on. Reed snatched a tough rebound and made one free throw with eight seconds to play to push the Blue Demon lead back to two possessions and ensure that DePaul would hold on.
Now, the two teams will face off one more time, with the winner cutting down the nets. For DePaul, it represents the chance to win 20 games in a season for the first time in more than a decade and send off Strus, Cain, and Olujobi on a high note. They’ll get the chance to do it in front of what should be a packed house at the program’s on-campus gym, where the team has played throughout this tournament rather than its typical home court at Wintrust Arena in downtown Chicago. Wednesday’s game saw a rowdy student section (a rarity at DePaul games at Wintrust due to the lengthy trip from campus) and an overall excellent atmosphere with very few empty seats in a tight, loud gym.
Meanwhile, it’s hard not to be impressed with the young core Brian Gregory has put together at USF. Yetna’s flashed tremendous potential as a do-it-all forward who should wreak havoc in the AAC moving forward, while Rideau and Collins are also slated to return next season. Coming off five straight 20+ loss seasons before setting a program record for wins in a season this year, the future is bright in Tampa. The Bulls could put a cherry on top of this season with a postseason championship Friday night.