In what was their toughest test yet to date, the DePaul Blue Demons responded with an emphatic victory over the Penn State Nittany Lions. Led by the 21 of Max Strus and 14 of Eli Cain, the Blue Demons were able to hold off a PSU team in overtime by the final score of 72-70.
It was a rough start for the Blue Demons as less than three minutes into it, they were down double digits. DePaul had six turnovers in the opening five minutes and Penn State took advantage of it. The Nittany Lions went on a 11-0 run to start the game and it looked ugly for the Blue Demons. A little after the U16 timeout, Paul Reed found a cutting Femi Olujobi and DePaul was on the board. The layup seemed to spark DePaul as they were able to find success in the paint. It began to open things up for the offense and they began to show signs of life. They weren’t as sloppy and were riding the boost provided by Olujobi and Reed, who both came off the bench. Although the deficit at the U12 timeout was seven, at 19-12, the momentum was on DePaul’s side. They had hit 6 of their last 8 field goals and forced Penn State to take some really tough shots on the defensive end.
The run continued and with 10:11 left in the first half, the Blue Demons tied it up at 19 thanks to a turnaround hook shot by Reed. Both backup big men were great in the first half, showing an advantage DePaul had in the post. The Blue Demons went cold from the field for the next four minutes after the Reed bucket and it took a Devin Gage reverse layup to snap it. Luckily for them, Penn State was only up three as they were struggling to buy a basket as well. DePaul needed another spark and it came in the form of Gage. He scored seven straight and it gave DePaul their first lead of the game with 4:21 left in the first half.
With the crowd into it, DePaul ended the first half on a high note. They went on a 8-2 run in the final three minutes to take a 36-31 lead heading into halftime. It was a very solid first half for the Blue Demons, as they shot 51.7% (15 of 29) from the field. Gage and Olujobi led the way with 12 and 10 points respectively. Olujobi was extremely efficient as he shot 5 of 6 from the field in the first 20 minutes. As for Penn State, it was the combination of Lamar Stevens and Josh Reaves who led them in scoring with 12 and 8. The Nittany Lions were shooting a bit worse than DePaul at 37.5%, much of it due to the 3-4 minute offensive droughts they had after their great start to the game.
Much like the first half, Penn State had a really good opening sequence. They hit their first four shots and regained the lead at 41-40. A weird swing in momentum occurred after DePaul took a 47-41 lead. Olujobi, who scored the basket, was called for a technical foul. It turned out to be a three point swing and it got DePaul rattled. Penn State went on a 6-0 and suddenly it was tied at 47 all. The teams kept battling back and forth for the lead as we headed into the U12 timeout. Both teams were hot in the first 8 minutes of the second half, with both shooting over 45% from the field. Mostly silent in the first half, Max Strus began to catch fire in the second. He scored 8 points in the first 8 minutes of the second half and looked like a completely different player. As often is the case, when Strus is hot, DePaul turns it up to another level. Wintrust Arena erupted as he splashed a three in a defenders face and made it 60-51 DePaul with a little under 10 minutes left. It didn’t stop there as the very next possession he got a backdoor screen off the ball and ran towards the rim. Eli Cain saw Strus and threw it up. The Lewis transfer went up, got the ball, and slammed it home for an incredible and-one play. Thanks to Strus, DePaul took a double digit lead heading into the under-8 timeout.
Both teams then went into a scoring drought as nobody scored for the next three minutes. DePaul and Penn State looked stagnant on offense, struggling to find open looks. The Blue Demons ended theirs on a pair of Jaylen Butz free throws. It made it a 68-58 game tin 3:35 left. But Penn State kept battling back and cut the lead down to five with 1:54 left thanks to a Myles Dread three-pointer. A DePaul turnover and Penn State dunk suddenly made it a three-point game. Things began to get tense at Wintrust. It didn’t get any better as another turnover led to a layup for Penn State. Strus tried to contest but ended up fouling Jamari Wheeler on the drive. But Wheeler missed the free throw and the Blue Demons kept their lead as the clock ticked under a minute left. on the next possession, Strus got the ball inside the restricted area but his defender was all over him and his shot got blocked. This led to Penn State grabbing the ball and having a chance to take the lead with 35.4 seconds left. Penn State seemed to catch a break when Butz was called for a foul, sending Stevens to the line. But he only hit one out of two, tying up the game at 68. With 19.8 on the clock, DePaul had a chance to take a shot for the win. But they never got a shot off as Cain was stripped trying to post up his man. Rasir Bolton wasn’t able to make the layup on the other and we headed for five extra minutes in Chicago.
Cain got DePaul on the board with a stepback jumper which bailed them out of a bad possession. Penn State on the other hand was absolutely cold in the extra period, going scoreless for the 4 minutes of OT. DePaul kept them in the game however thanks to some shaky offense and free throw shooting. It was only a four point game with 1:30 left. A pair of PSU free throws cut the lead in half and DePaul found themselves in a situation similar to the ending of regulation time. A missed three from Strus set up a Penn State baseline out of bounds play with 5 seconds left. It would come down to the DePaul defense to get one final stop.
A slip in coverage led to a wide open shot in the corner for Dread. But he was run off the three-point line and instead opted for a pull up jumper inside the arc. As the shot went up, it seemed we were headed for another OT but for the relief of DePaul fans, it clanked off the front rim. Strus grabbed the rebound and DePaul had won their third straight game.