NEW YORK—The debate over whether the Big East Championship should have been expanded to allow all 16 teams play ended after the very first game of the newly formatted tournament.
The lowly DePaul Blue Demons walked into the world's most famous arena and ran away with a 67-57 win over Cincinnati. It was the Blue Demons' first conference victory of the entire season. Only five times could DePaul keep a Big East regular season game within single-digits, but this was not the regular season.
"This is a new season, brand-new start for us," said DePaul's leading scorer Dar Tucker.
A brand-new start it was. DePaul took its last chance ran with it.
"It's now or never. We have to get respect now," said the Blue Demon's high scorer of the game, Will Walker.
It was clear, early and obviously, the Blue Demons wanted this game and respect more than the Bearcats.
Rarely did a Cincinnati player jump up with emotion, beat his chest, or try to fire up the crowd. The Blue Demons did just that.
Heading into huddles for timeouts, DePaul players bubbled with pride, especially in the second half, when they could smell victory.
"At the television timeout at eight [minutes left in the game], we knew we would win the game," said Walker.
Late in the second half, DePaul showed the world why they went 0-18 in the league. Blue Demon freshman Jeremiah Kelly made as big a freshman mistake a first-year player could make as he tried to get fancy on a fast break, but turned the ball over with only a seven-point lead. His teammates quickly comforted the frosh in order to help him regain his composure
Walker says that's this team's motto, "We stick together, the losses brought us closer and we became stronger."
About a minute later, Kelly let Madison Square Garden know he didn't check himself out of the game mentally. The freshman drove the lane with the shot clock winding down. A few of Cincinnati's trees in the post blocked his path. But coach Jerry Wainwright says that didn't stop his player, "The kid came back and made a great bounce pass at the end of the shot-clock."
Kelly turned to the crowd, beat his chest, and got a slowly growing crowd of several thousand on their feet.
That's the Big East Tournament.
A tournament that rewards every team a chance to redeem itself for a long schedule designed to create failures.
"For kids to go through 18 tough games, to not go to the Big East Tournament is not what this league is about," says Wainwright.
DePaul must use this "reward of playing in the BET" to build into the next year. The momentum created by the lore of the conference tournament that willed Syracuse into two consecutive runs to Big East titles and was then squandered when the 'Cuse lost in the first round both years. Last year, Pittsburgh caught fire, won the tournament, but also made an early exit.
Chances are DePaul won't even make it past Wednesday's matchup with Providence, but the Blue Demons can still turn this win into many...next year. DePaul has weapons, three of them in fact. Junior Will Walker is thrifty through the lane and can knock down the outside shot. Sophomore Dar Tucker brings to the court one of the best scoring touches in the conference. Fellow classmate Mac Koshwal is a bruising big man with the potential to become an all-conference player by the end of his career.
Wainwright commented after the game that his players now know how to win.
Wainwright's players need to remember how to win and still show the heart that made a fairly neutral crowd give them a standing ovation as they walked off the court victors in the Big East for the first and maybe the only time in 2009.
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