DePaul men’s basketball walked into Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night as the lowest-ranked team in the Big East Tournament. They won just two games in conference play all season. Head coach Dave Leitao and his team didn’t have much to believe in until they outhustled Providence in an eight-point victory to set up Thursday night’s meeting with UConn.
Over the course of that night, the Blue Demons watched top-seeded Villanova get upset by no. 8 Georgetown — and no. 5 Seton Hall take down no. 4 St. John’s in OT.
At 9 p.m., it was the Blue Demons turn under the lights — why couldn’t they do the same?
Because they ran into an absolute buzzsaw.
By 9:10 p.m., any hopes for a third upset were all but gone. UConn ended the first half with more-than double the points of its opponent. It ended with the bottom of the bench on the court and a 34-point deficit at the final buzzer. The Demons had dispatched the Friars, but the Huskies held an exorcism.
DePaul had just one player finish with an efficiency score of 10 or more – Javon Freeman-Liberty, the night’s top scorer with 19 points — while UConn had seven different players register a 10 or higher. R.J. Cole finished with an efficiency score of 18 and a plus-minus of plus-27, second only to Tyrese Martin’s plus-29.
The Huskies also had their second-best turnover (11.3%) and offensive rebounding (53.3%) ratios of the season Thursday. They scored an impressive 1.288 points per possession and took 76 shots on the night.
UConn was so efficient it jumped four spots in KenPom in a game it was projected to win by 12 points. The Huskies are now ranked No. 17, the highest they’ve been since November 2014.
“We feel the excitement, our fan base is one of the best in the country,” head coach Dan Hurley said post-game. “We’re just happy we’re giving them something to be happy about in March again.”
The rebounding difference, 53-32, was also stark. In terms of rebounding percentage, it was a ridiculous performance. UConn grabbed 29 of DePaul’s 36 missed shots and 24 of its own 38 misses.
UConn had four players log over 10 minutes and post a rebounding percentage above 11% — led by Tyrese Martin’s 17.3% and Isaiah Whaley’s 16.3%. Even though the shooting numbers weren’t spectacular, they crashed the offensive glass. Martin finished the night with a double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, both team highs.
“We were tenacious on the glass,” Hurley said. “And that was a real concern of ours coming in because we’re one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. But DePaul as well is they’re a beast on the backboards.”
The ball movement was off the charts as well, with Cole dropping eight dimes and assisting on 55% of the baskets when he was on the court. Freshman Andre Jackson turned in a boatload of highlights Thursday, but his laser beam assist to Whaley in the second half stood out.
Andre Jackson ☄️ to Isaiah Whaley for the slam pic.twitter.com/2imX64IENd— Mike Mavredakis (@MMavredakis) March 12, 2021
The active offense led to scoring, and a lot of it, as UConn finished with 94 points and could have easily surpassed 100 had it not slowed down in the final minutes.
Not only did UConn move the ball, but they took it away from DePaul too. The Blue Demons have had one Achilles heel all season — its 22% turnover percentage, which ranks in the bottom 50 in the country.
They turned it over 15 times Thursday night, giving a stifling UConn defense 26 points off giveaways.
UConn stayed out of foul trouble as well, which has hurt them at times this season. Just four players had three fouls and just one, Jackson, hit four on the night.
There were few negatives to point to for UConn. Sophomore James Bouknight exited in the second half due to cramps, but Hurley jokingly said he was being “overdramatic.”
After solidifying itself as a postseason contender, UConn will take on Creighton on Friday night at 9 p.m. at Madison Square Garden. The game will be televised on FS1.
“We get a chance to play a marquee game tomorrow night, which is exciting,” Hurley said. “To be able to give college basketball fans kind of a fun game to tune into tomorrow night during this, like, brutal COVID time. We know it’s a tremendous challenge but it’s exciting, too.”