DePaul puts on the pressure

DURHAM, N.C. -- Exactly one year to the day after DePaul limped out of Cameron Indoor Stadium battered, bruised and beaten in a first-round game against Oklahoma State that almost no one outside of Stillwater has reason to remember, the Blue Demons had a hop in their step as they prepared to head home -- if only briefly this time. The Sweet 16 awaits, after all.

It was second-seeded Duke that limped away, a team already shorthanded left with heavy legs and tired tears.

The NCAA tournament said goodbye to its first contender Monday when seventh-seeded DePaul scored a 74-65 victory against second-seeded Duke, the first such seed to miss out on the Sweet 16 in three years after its first NCAA tournament loss at Cameron in 20 games stretching across 18 years of postseason basketball.

It was an upset. It was small beating big. But it was not David taking down Goliath. Just one team with the four smallest players on the court and a plan beating a bigger team that couldn't get to its plan.

DePaul may have lacked size, but defensive pressure and good shooting gave it all the leverage it needed.

"That's the game within the game," DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. "You're trying to play to your strengths, and the opposing coach is always trying to play to their strengths -- whoever can get to be able to play to your strengths the best. We knew there was no way we could have guarded their size, and the strength and talent of Elizabeth Williams inside, with a 20-foot defense. So that was the plan, was to try and wear them down and wear them down over time."

The plan was to pressure the ball at every turn against a team left without a true point guard after injuries to Chelsea Gray and Alexis Jones. Don't let the ball get into the hands of the collection of big bodies who punished Winthrop two days earlier and better teams than the Big South champion in an ACC tournament run. Do it all without losing track of Tricia Liston.

And then knock down a lot of 3-pointers on the other team's home court.

Sounds good on paper, but it's more difficult when the ball tips. And it's more difficult when the 6-foot-3 Williams rolls to the basket while the 6-foot-1 Liston spots up and gazes over perimeter defenders -- the reason why four of Duke's previous six losses this season came against teams that remain unbeaten.

But the pressure did work this night. Duke did look like a team without a point guard from the outset Monday. After eight minutes, the Blue Devils had eight field goal attempts and seven turnovers. After nearly 13 minutes, it was 13 field goal attempts and 10 turnovers. Even when the Blue Devils broke pressure, traps and double teams awaited almost any time an offensive player picked up her dribble near the paint. The only saving grace was that DePaul struggled to hit shots of its own early, making it more difficult for the Blue Demons to set up full-court pressure.

"I think they were very aggressive defensively," Duke's Haley Peters said. "They were really up on top of our ball handlers, and we didn't handle it very well. ... We just got a little bit rattled, I think, by how aggressive and how much pressure they put on us. So we didn't execute very well."

That was the plan. Not the plan specifically for this game, although there were some tweaks to make sure someone, if not someones, stayed on Liston's hip at all times. The plan DePaul put in place back in October. The plan Bruno hopes to use every season. As he put it, it makes for a better show.

"We just wanted to take their legs because we like to run," Megan Rogowski said. "They're an opportunistic running team. They will, but they prefer not to. But we wanted the game going a lot faster. We wanted to get them going, and that's what we did -- pressure them and make them feel uncomfortable with the ball."

It still appeared DePaul might have squandered all that work by leaving too many points on the floor in the first half. Despite the frenetic tempo, despite 10 more shots by the Blue Demons than their opponent, the scoreboard had DePaul ahead just 27-24 at halftime. And like games earlier this season against Notre Dame and Kentucky in which DePaul was level or close at the break only to give ground -- and too many easy layups-- in the second half, Duke took its first lead of the game just minutes into the second half.

It held its first and only lead for just 10 seconds, Megan Podkowa's 3-pointer in reply setting off an 11-2 run.

After hitting just 5 of 17 3-pointers in the first half, DePaul hit 9 of 16 shots from behind the arc in the second half. The team's two leading scorers on the day with 22 and 18 points, respectively, Rogowski and Podkowa combined for seven 3-pointers and 29 points in the second half.

"It was definitely a big shot," Rogowski said of Podkowa's answer. "Even though we went down one or two points, I still felt like we were in control. Especially her making that shot, it really kept us going, believing we were still in control of the game and even if we're down, we'll hit a big shot."

It makes it easier to believe when you can still breathe. As much as Williams, Peters and Liston tried to bring the Blue Devils back, there just wasn't enough left in their legs. An 86 percent free throw shooter, Liston left one short. Off a block at the other end, one of seven in the game, Williams missed a layup, got the rebound, missed again, got the rebound and finally got to the free throw line on her third attempt -- which wouldn't fall for a three-point opportunity.

DePaul has been there. Season after recent season, whether Keisha Hampton, Anna Martin, Deirdre Naghton or others, it has reached the NCAA tournament something less than whole. It was the case a season ago, when the Blue Demons couldn't pressure Oklahoma State, not with effectively seven healthy players. This time they had the backcourt of Rogowski, Chanise Jenkins, Jessica January and Brittany Hrynko, whose fearlessness bordering on recklessness paced her team from start to finish. They had Podkowa, Jasmine Penny and more bodies in reserve.

This time they were the team that kept running as the favorite wobbled and finally fell under the weight of 21 turnovers and not enough touches inside.

Small beat big in DePaul's first tournament appearance as a member of a new Big East trying to prove it remains relevant against the likes of the ACC.

Liston nearly spent her college career in a DePaul uniform. Bruno coached her father and remained close to the family before and after a daughter who would develop unlimited range and good size arrived on the scene as a baby. She seemed ticketed for the Chicago school until Duke swept in late and wowed her with all that Duke can justifiably wow recruits with, academically and athletically. But that isn't the kind of player the Blue Demons generally sign. They more often get the 5-foot-7 guards, the posts who are a little too skinny or a little too short.

They get the kids Duke, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Stanford don't recruit. But here they are, carrying the Big East banner into a Sweet 16 loaded with its former members.

"We unabashedly go after everybody," Bruno said. "It's been getting later in their life that they say 'no' to us. It used to be when they were in seventh grade, and now it's started to become sophomore year. They just don't understand. It's hard to sell a 16-year old girl that basically when you get your first job out of Duke, guess where you're going to live? You're going to have a job in Chicago; you're going to live in Lincoln Park. It's a great place to be.

"So we unabashedly go after every single player in the country, and we don't fret when they say 'no.'"

Maybe a few more will say "yes." After all, if they were watching Monday night, who would want to have play against that pressure?