By DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — With a senior-laden roster, DePaul coach Doug Bruno knew that this could be a special season for his team.
Boy was he right, as the Blue Demons had the best year in school history, finishing tied for second in the BIG EAST Conference regular season. They won 29 games—the most at the school.
Led by the five seniors, the third seed in the NCAA tournament beat Navy and Penn State to get to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2005-06.
It all came to an end with a 70-63 loss to Duke in the round of 16 on Sunday.
Coach Bruno allowed The Associated Press exclusive access to the team and coaches during its time at the regional.
SEND-OFF: While making the regional semifinals is commonplace at schools such as UConn and Tennessee, the Blue Demons were excited to make it there for the first time in five years.
The whole school and community has rallied around the team.
“It’s all one big family at DePaul,” senior guard Sam Quigley said. “Where else do you call the athletic director by her first name? She’s been where we are and understands us well.”
Jean Lenti Ponsetto was a four-sport athlete at the school, graduating in 1978. She was also Coach Bruno’s first captain.
The team was serenaded by the school’s pep band and the few hundred fans in attendance.
ARRIVAL: The NCAA goes out of its way to make teams feel comfortable at their hotels when they arrive at the regionals.
A middle school basketball team eagerly waited for the Blue Demons to show up, holding homemade signs with each DePaul player’s name and number on them.
The DePaul team bus was a bit delayed as Bruno decided to take a quick detour and drive by Philadelphia native Keisha Hampton’s high school which was a stone’s throw away from Temple.
When the Blue Demons finally arrived and got off the bus, the high school players took turns chanting “De” and “Paul” as the school’s fight song played in the background.
The DePaul players smiled and cheered and took it all in.
“That was a really cool thing and neat touch,” Quigley said.
STUDYING THE BLUE DEVILS: The Blue Demons spent a few hours each day watching film of the Blue Devils in preparation for Sunday’s game.
They set up a makeshift film room in a hotel suite, taping a sheet up against the wall with pink duct tape. The Blue Demons bought a projection system a few years back and prefer to use that rather than get the hotel to give them a screening room—which they usually charge for. This system works out just fine for the old school coach.
Bruno would stop and start the DVD and have sophomore center Katherine Harry point out each mistake that was made by Duke’s opponents so that the Blue Demons could not repeat them.
“I think it’s a great learning tool for him to use me,” Harry said. “Most of the time I know what he’s talking about so I’m glad he does it. He’s a great teacher and I learned so much from him already.”
Little did Bruno know that the same errors he had Harry point out would be the same ones that would do in the Blue Demons against Duke.
TICKET BROKERS: One part of the job of the coaching staff that goes unnoticed is ticket allocations.
Bruno and associate head coach Nicci Hayes-Fort spent four hours figuring out where the 300 people on their pass list would sit for Sunday’s game against Duke.
It’s not as easy as it sounds trying to please everyone and honoring ticket requests by players.
“It’s like putting together a giant jigsaw puzzle,” Hayes-Fort said. “You try to make it as fair as possible for everyone.”
One extra piece of the puzzle was getting NCAA clearance to allow Drexel guard Taylor Wooton on the list. She is the sister of DePaul center Felicia Taylor’s fiance Corey Wooton—the Chicago Bears defensive end.
Because Taylor Wooton is an active student athlete at another school she needed to get cleared by the NCAA.
PROUD GRANDPA: Bruno’s 2-year old grandson Brendan made his first road trip to see the Blue Demons.
He’s made the most of his trip, constantly amusing the team. Brendan had the biggest smile on his face when coach’s wife Patty gave the youngster a blue DePaul shirt before the Blue Demons boarded the plane from Chicago to Philadelphia.
He rarely has taken it off since, proudly wearing the shirt around the team hotel showing off his allegiance.
Brendan has been a regular at Blue Demons games with his father Kevin, watching his grandfather’s team. Already an astute fan, he picked up the DePaul band’s favorite cheer “Warm up the Bus” when the Blue Demons have a game well in hand.
On the bus ride from the airport to the team hotel, Brendan took the microphone and started singing it to the team.
BLUE-BLOODED: Sophomore guard Anna Martin was staring intently at the television set, talking to herself all through dinner. American Idol? No.
Her team was on and she wasn’t about to miss any of the action.
Like most people who grew up in Lexington, she’s been a die-hard Kentucky Wildcats fan since birth. With the Wildcats playing Ohio State for a chance to get to the regional final, she wasn’t going to let food get in the way of the game.
“My whole family is a fan, I’ve watched every game since I was little,” Martin said. “My first game going into Rupp Arena is such a memory.”
She kept on going up to the bar in the Italian restaurant and checking the score and watching between courses.
The most agonizing time for Martin was when the meal ended and there were about 15 left in the game. After a 5-minute bus ride back to the hotel, she raced off the bus and ran up to her room to catch the end of the game and the thrilling last-second Kentucky victory.
“Yeah I admit I was screaming and yelling in the room as the game was going on,” Martin said. “Coach actually heard me down the hallway.”
Martin got in “trouble” as a freshman when she wore a Kentucky shirt to a film session.
“I just threw it on because I have some Kentucky men’s basketball shirts,” she said laughing. “Freshman mistake, I guess.”
One thing that definitely wasn’t a mistake, was Martin’s choice to come to DePaul.
“This just seemed like a fit for me,” She said. “Deep down inside I knew Kentucky wasn’t. I came here and I love everything about it.
SAYING A PRAYER: DePaul University President Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider led a Mass for the team on Saturday. The Blue Demons along with the coaching staff, university administrators, athletic department staff, parents and fans attended.
Two of DePaul’s music students and members of the Screamin’ Demon band served as choir while Harry did the first reading. The service lasted about 45 minutes and was just before the Blue Demons took off to the arena for practice.
HELPING HAND: The Screamin’ Demons Band, cheerleaders and dance team went to the Carousel House Recreation Center for children and adults with disabilities on Sunday. The group met with House Director Joe Ryan and took a short tour of the facility that included viewing the wheelchair basketball recreation league in action. Then the Blue Demons headed outdoors where they swept, shoveled and pick up winter’s debris from the center’s outdoor track.
DON’T BET ON IT: The DePaul players and staff as well as all the other teams in Philadelphia listened to a 15-minute presentation from the NCAA on gambling.
Former Maine field hockey player Lesa Densmore talked about her addiction to gambling and how she tried to commit suicide. She slowly is starting to put her life back together again.
It was a powerful message that definitely got the players thinking.
GETTING READY: The Blue Demons arrived at the arena in the middle of the other semifinal game between UConn and Georgetown. The team stayed in the back as Bruno wanted them to stretch and stay focused for the task at hand.
The DePaul coaching staff made a 12-minute highlight video which they showed to the team right before they took the floor to reinforce how good a season it had been.
SAD CONCLUSION: The careers of DePaul seniors Deirdre Naughton, Quigley, Felicia Chester, Jen Juergens and China Threatt came to an end with the Blue Demons’ 70-63 loss to Duke.
There were many tears shed in the locker room postgame, including by Coach Bruno.
“It was really a sad time for everyone, but he reminded us that we’ve set a new standard at DePaul,” Naughton said. “We came in the year after they made the last trip to the Sweet 16 and now we’re back again. We’ve laid a great foundation for the future of DePaul women’s basketball.”
Thirty minutes after the game, Bruno went back out on the court with his grandson on his shoulders. A few hundred DePaul supporters remained including the families of the players.
When asked to say a few words about the team, his answer was simple.
“This is the best group I’ve ever had to coach.”