DePaul returns to the NCAA Tournament after two-year absence

“Yesterday felt like it was the first time in,” coach Doug Bruno said.

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“Yesterday felt like it was the first time in,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno said after the Blue Demons made the NCAA Tournament.

“Yesterday felt like it was the first time in,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno said after the Blue Demons made the NCAA Tournament.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Two years away from the NCAA Tournament were almost enough to erase the memory of 17 consecutive trips for DePaul women’s basketball coach Doug Bruno.

The Hall of Fame coach always tried to instill in his players that despite the program’s consistency, nothing is guaranteed. After the tournament was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 and the Blue Demons failed to qualify in 2021, that lesson was reestablished for him as well.

“Yesterday felt like it was the first time in,” Bruno said.

The team watched Selection Sunday together in a conference room at the Sullivan Athletic Center. Qdoba was ordered as they anxiously awaited the news of whether their 2021-22 season was enough to warrant a return to the madness.

This year wasn’t steady for the Blue Demons.

They finished 22-10, losing close games to top opponents like Arizona, Notre Dame and UConn. Bruno’s team split against tournament teams like Villanova and Creighton, and non-tournament teams Marquette and Seton Hall.

Watching ESPN’s selection show Sunday evening as a true bubble team, they had few expectations.

“We were being realistic about the situation,” senior guard Lexi Held said. “We knew there were games we left on the table. But there were also games we got that were really important like the Kentucky game.”

In 2020, Held and the rest of the team were riding a wave of momentum after winning the Big East tournament. The high of claiming their fifth tournament title was quickly erased by the news that the NCAA Tournament would be canceled.

Held described the following season, which they finished 14-10, as a disappointment. After losing to Drake in the WNIT’s consolation bracket, DePaul’s returning players knew they had to reestablish the consistency the program was built on.

Incoming freshman Aneesah Morrow would help them do that.

“It means a lot to represent Chicago in the tournament,” Morrow said. “The reason I [committed to DePaul] was to represent this city and be an inspiration for people here.”

The All-American led the country in double-doubles and rebounds, was named The Athletic’s National Freshman of the Year, Big East Freshman of the Year and finished the season third in field goals made. Morrow also carried a streak of 23 double-doubles into DePaul’s final game of the Big East tournament. She was four rebounds away from extending the streak to 24.

Bruno’s team didn’t have to wait long to hear their name called in the Greensboro Region as an 11th seed playing in the First Four against No. 11 seeded Dayton. Players felt a combination of relief, pride and a need to prove they belong.

“There’s people that think we shouldn’t have made it,” Held said. “We’re ready to go out and play our best basketball right now.”

Dayton (25-5) is making its ninth tournament appearance. The Flyers notably upset Louisville in 2015 en route to their first elite eight. Shauna Green’s team has great length and guard skills across every position on the floor. Sophomore guard, Makira Cook leads the way averaging 14.6 points on 40% shooting for the Flyers.

The winner of Wednesday’s 8 p.m. game in Ames, Iowa, will advance to the first round where they’ll play No. 6 Georgia (20-9).

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