Jerseys versus sweatsuits.
All things being equal, it would be a good game.
And don’t think that thought hasn’t crossed Doug Bruno’s mind a few times this season.
Every time the DePaul women’s basketball coach looks down his bench, he sees as much talent sitting there holding ice packs and crutches as he sees on the floor.
If not more.
That’s the sad reality and also the wonderment that has been the Blue Demons’ season. DePaul has a lot of talent sitting on its bench. Too much, quite honestly.
The Blue Demons are missing five players, including three starters and an all-American, due to serious injuries.
And yet, thanks to the relentlessness, grittiness and perseverance of the seven remaining players on the team, the ones in the jerseys who Bruno refers to as the “Magnificent Seven,” the Blue Demons have remained one of the best teams in the country.
Despite missing the production of a player like preseason all-American senior forward Keisha Hampton, DePaul rolled up 22 regular-season wins, finished with a winning record in the tough Big East Conference and was ranked in the top 25 nearly all season.
Now, the Blue Demons are steaming forward in the NCAA Tournament. They fended off a pesky BYU team 59-55 Saturday in first-round action in front of 4,161 rowdy fans at Allstate Arena.
“This team has had to fight through a lot this year and that’s what the NCAA Tournament is all about, fighting every game, every possession,” said DePaul junior guard Anna Martin, who scored a team-high 17 points against BYU to help seventh-seeded DePaul advance into Monday’s second-round game at Allstate against No. 2 Tennessee, a 72-49 winner over Tennessee-Martin earlier in the afternoon.
Martin has picked up some major slack in the scoring department and has become the go-to player that Hampton was. Hampton was averaging about 17 points per game when a knee injury in December ended her career. Martin (19 ppg) wound up leading the Big East in scoring for most of the season.
Guard Deanna Ortiz, projected as a reserve, has stepped right into Hampton’s starting spot and given the Blue Demons a savvy veteran presence. Meanwhile, freshman guard Brittany Hrynko replaced Chanise Jenkins at starting point guard when Jenkins went down with a season-ending ankle injury two games in. And sophomore forward Jasmine Penny became a full-time starter when it became clear that Taylor Pikes would need more time to recover from the knee injury that knocked her out of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
Pikes, the Big East’s Sixth Player of the Year last season, hasn’t stepped onto the floor for the Blue Demons this season.
On top of all that, promising freshman Alexa Gallagher has missed the entire season with a knee injury and valuable veteran Maureen Mulchrone has missed 23 games, including the last 19, because of persistent back problems.
“We’ve done a really good job of sticking together. We decide right away that ‘we still want to do this, we still want to compete and reach our goals,’” said Ortiz, the only senior who is able to play. “You never want to see any of your teammates go down with an injury. Every time someone did, it just hurt so much to see them sidelined.
“But it doesn’t matter to the rest of us if the odds are against us or not. We’re the team that wants to play together and come together.”
The heart and character of the “Magnificent Seven,” who have been likened to the main characters of an old movie about beating the odds, hasn’t been lost on Bruno.
He likes to point out how difficult it is to navigate the Big East and qualify for the NCAA Tournament in a normal year, playing at full strength. This is beyond anything he’s ever seen in his 26 years on the DePaul bench.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve never been in a situation where we were without five key players,” Bruno said. “(But) instead of wondering what could have been, our ‘Magnificent Seven’ is embracing what they can be.
“There were no excuses. It’s not what we do at DePaul. We’re going to compete and fight.”
The next fight is a big one as perennial power Tennessee looms.
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