DePaul might be back.
It was one thing to handle Iowa on the road in the Gavitt Games. Taking down Minnesota in Minneapolis? Impressive, I suppose.
But beating the defending national runner-ups in overtime on national television?
That, my friends, is a statement.
Just for a night, Chicago felt like a college basketball town. A raucous crowd at Wintrust Arena that sounded like far more than the 5,493 that were announced to have been in attendance was witness to one of the most exciting finishes of the college basketball season. That finish: a 65-60 win by the Blue Demons that should go a long way in their hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
Dave Leitao didn’t say it outright, but he implied what everyone who has watched DePaul for the last decade was thinking: DePaul doesn’t win this game.
When a guy who shot 90% from the free throw line goes to the line up two in the closing moments to finish you off, you don’t win that game.
When you’re 2-17 from downtown, you don’t make one in the closing seconds to tie. You don’t win that game.
When you turn the ball over in an open-court situation in the final minute of overtime up by one, you don’t win that game.
Not when you’re DePaul.
It was different Wednesday night. Ever-reliable Davide Moretti missed a key free throw, Jalen Coleman-Lands hit a 3 that will be remembered by DePaul fans for a long time, and the Blue Demons scrapped their way to a potentially program-defining win.
“Each night out, we get a chance to erase those things that may have been apart of this team or this program as the years have gone by,” Leitao said. “We’d like to think it’s a brand new start, a brand new era.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that Coleman-Lands was the one who hit the game-defining shot: a player who has been knocked down so many times in his career by injuries continuing to get back up and eventually being rewarded with the biggest moment of his college career.
“Thinking about it now, that time last year… allowed me to cherish this year, not just this game, but every game,” Coleman-Lands said. “I wouldn’t be the person or the player I am today without the trials and tribulations that I went through.”
The flurry of big buckets in the closing moments likely made most forget that this game was a defensive slugfest. Without star guard Jahmi’us Ramsey, Texas Tech forced the game into a halfcourt war, limiting possessions and hoping to hit enough shots to allow its defense the opportunity to win the game. For the most part, things went according to plan. The Blue Demons shot under 40% from the field, TTU limited star PG Charlie Moore to 2-15 shooting, and Chicago native Terrence Shannon had a career game in a return to his hometown to give the Red Raiders the offensive spark it so desperately needed. A long triple by Shannon gave TTU a six point lead with 3:18 in a shot that felt like a dagger.
But DePaul just wouldn’t go away.
The Blue Demons clawed back within two on a bucket by Jaylen Butz with 25.5 seconds to go and set its defense. On the ensuing inbounds, it appeared DePaul had forced a turnover after trapping graduate forward Chris Clarke underneath his own basket. But before a travel could be whistled, Chris Beard was able to call timeout from his bench on the far end of the court to salvage the possession. On the next inbounds, TTU found the ever-reliable Moretti, who was fouled. But after swishing the first, Moretti’s second try rimmed out, giving DePaul one last chance to tie. The sharpshooter Coleman-Lands came off a screen and found himself wide open on the left wing.
As every single person in the building held their breath, Coleman-Lands stepped in confidently and knocked down the three.
It was a Coleman-Lands three that sparked things in overtime as well, a massive answer after the Blue Demons were held scoreless for the first three minutes of the extra session. A dunk by freshman Romeo Weems gave DePaul the lead briefly before another massive triple by Shannon. That lead would quickly evaporate thanks to yet another bomb from Coleman-Lands.
After DePaul got a stop on the other end, disaster nearly struck. Moore had his pocket picked near midcourt for what could have turned into an easy layup at the other end. But Moore dove for the loose ball and was just able to poke it into the corner, where Coleman-Lands was able to regain possession for the Blue Demons. A late prayer by Shannon fell off the rim, and bedlam ensued.
DePaul was 9-0 for the first time in 33 years.
“We’re going to enjoy it, because we need to,” Leitao said. It’s been a long road to get to this point, and just understand we’re only at the starting gate.”
Coleman-Lands’ late eruption from downtown helped him lead the way for the Blue Demons with 18 points. Junior forward Paul Reed also had 18, Butz had 17 points and 7 rebounds, and Moore stuffed the stat sheet with 6 points, 5 rebounds, and 10 assists.
Shannon led the way for the Red Raiders with 24 points and 8 rebounds.
DePaul has more than 20 games left on its schedule. Plenty of things can change. But the bottom line is this: right now, the Blue Demons look very much the part of an NCAA Tournament team. And given what this program has been through in the last fifteen years, that’s about all you can ask for.