Time for Blue Demons to Take One Final Bow
April 7, 2014
CHICAGO – Take a well-deserved bow Doug Bruno and everyone in your program for taking Blue Demon nation on quite a ride during an exhilarating women’s basketball season.
Who can forget the exuberant smile on Brittany Hrynko’s face as she high-fived fans at Allstate Arena after her team had won its first BIG EAST tournament title?
If one photo encapsulates the 2013-14 season, it was Chanise Jenkins busting a move after an upset of No. 2 seed Duke on its home court allowed the Blue Demons to keep on dancing in the NCAA tournament.
The game before that, DePaul brought nationwide acclaim to the sport of women’s basketball with a 104-100 triumph over Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament opener.
It was the highest scoring regulation game in the history of the NCAA women's tournament.
What coach Bruno had assembled and carefully nurtured was a band of incredibly unselfish and caring student-athletes with a fighting spirit that would not be denied.
The season could have gone south right after DePaul lost three of four in late November and early December. Instead, the Blue Demons responded by winning the next six games that included the Duel in the Desert title in Las Vegas.
They opened the BIG EAST season 2-2 and were losing to Seton Hall at halftime when something clicked.
“In the locker room, there was a feeling of: ‘Why are we losing?’” said Megan Rogowski who is third in the nation in three-point percentage. “We should beat this team. All right, let’s lock in and start winning some games.”
Such unrelenting resolve resulted in a nine-game winning streak that was snapped at Marquette.
“There was some slippage in the Marquette loss when we didn’t play defense, didn’t rebound and made some unwise decisions,” Bruno said. “We re-emphasized those three issues and went on to win nine in a row.
“What made it work this season is we had a real savvy backcourt led by Brittany Hrynko and Chanise Jenkins that included Megan Rogowski, Jessica January, Centrese McGee and Kelsey Reynolds. Our forwards Jasmine Penny and Megan Podkowa are like backcourt players and really smart.
“I was impressed with the way the players allowed themselves to be coached after losses. It allowed the coaches to address the specific areas where the team needed to improve---defense, rebounding and simple, shared decisions on offense.”
Seton Hall was also the place where the metamorphosis of Brittney Hrynko began to take shape.
Her first two seasons at DePaul were much simpler---use your offensive creativity and crossover moves to score the ball.
“My first year we had Keisha Hampton and Anna Martin, good scorers who could create their own shots,” Hrynko said. “That was easy just getting them the ball. Nobody knew what I could do as a freshman.
“My first two years I was basically a scorer, and teams knew what I wanted to do. This season, teams came up with plans to try and stop that.
“Coach Bruno told me I don’t have to score all the time for our team to win. This year was more about getting my teammates involved and for me to make simple plays and simple decisions.”
It took a little while for Hyrnko to command her expanded role.
“I had not been a facilitator and scorer this much before, and it took a while before I felt comfortable,” Hrynko said. “It was the game at Seton Hall that I first felt like it was all coming together.
“That was the beginning of our nine-game winning streak, and I could see the connection between me and the team. I realized that when I’m not making shots and getting down on myself, it has a negative impact on everyone else. How I feel is how the team feels.
“Coach tells me to play happy and help my teammates get better. I learned that when players are taking their lead from you, I have to show them it’s not just about me.”
DePaul (29-7) tied the school record for most wins in a season and set program records for games played (36), points (3,006), three-point baskets (314) and assists (705). The Blue Demons advanced to their third NCAA Sweet 16 after claiming their first BIG EAST regular-season and tournament titles.
Overall team success lays the groundwork for individual accolades, and Hrynko has been recognized as an Associated Press honorable mention All-America and Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) honorable mention All-America. Penny was also a WBCA honorable mention All-America.
“It is a very big honor, and I was kind of surprised because I didn’t expect to win those awards,” Hrynko said. “It means I’m getting better, but I wouldn’t have gotten that recognition without the help of my teammates.
“All the credit goes to them. They have helped me become a better basketball player and a better person. If Jas (Penny) didn’t score all those baskets inside and if Rogo (Rogowski) doesn’t hit those three-pointers, I don’t get any of this.”
After beating NCAA tournament qualifier St. John’s for the BIG EAST tournament title, DePaul entered the NCAA tournament having won seven in a row and 16 of 17.
“Oklahoma was a real emotional game,” said Rogowski, who hit the defining shot of the game---a 3-pointer with 40.5 seconds left for a 100-97 lead. “We were up 19 and let them back into it. At the end, we hit some big shots and made some key stops. Brit (Hrynko) was great down the stretch, hitting some very deep threes and making some huge plays.
“Brit was scoring in crunch time. When she drove the lane, my defender saw her and collapsed inside to help. With two players on her, I was all alone in the corner and shouting ‘Brit, Brit!’
“She somehow got off this backward, overhead, no-look pass. I had time to gather myself and knocked it down. Brit was awesome the last three minutes.”
Rogowski, Jenkins and Hrynko combined to score 64 points.
Then came No. 2 seed Duke at the legendary Cameron Indoor Stadium. That was where DePaul’s season was supposed to end.
Instead, Rogowski led the way with 22 points while Megan Podkowa finished with 18 and Hrynko with 14 in the 74-65 victory that advanced the Blue Demons into the NCAA Sweet 16.
“My favorite memory of this season is the Duke game,” said Rogowski as DePaul hit a season-high 14 three-pointers. “Beating Duke on their home court with them being the No. 2 seed was special. They don’t lose at Cameron.
“No one thought we could win, and that was the best.”
DePaul’s bid for its first Elite Eight appearance was halted after an 84-65 loss to Texas A&M in the Lincoln, Neb. regional. In the final game of her career, Penny came through with 24 points.
“We saw an advantage for me inside against their bigger post players,” said Penny, who is 11th in the nation in field goal percentage. “I was quicker, and the team did a good job focusing on me and getting me the ball.”
It rekindled memories of Penny’s memorable run of six consecutive games with 21 or more points from Dec. 29-Jan. 14 that included 29 against Bradley, 27 versus Xavier and 26 against Creighton.
“I was coming out really focused,” Penny said. “I did a good job of finishing and being strong inside. I have to give our guards a lot of credit for getting me the ball around the basket. They constantly found me all over the floor.
“During that stretch, it felt like all my shots were going in. The guards set me up with a lot of quality shots.”
One of those guards noticed the evolution of the teammate nicknamed Jas.
“I’m proud of how everyone came out of their shell---especially Jasmine Penny,” Jenkins said. “My first couple of years here, she hardly said anything. On my official visit, Keisha Hampton and Taylor Pikes took me Downtown. Jas was with us, but hardly said a word. It was like: ‘Who is this person?’
“This season, you saw Jas talking to us on the floor and telling us what to do. That was a big factor in our success. Others players were thinking that if Jas can come out of her shell, why not me.
“People always talk about the intangibles of a winning program. Jas coming out of her shell was a big one. Seeing her emerge made us realize that every player has a little something that helps the team. She was such a terrific team player who said all the right things.”
Perhaps the biggest intangible was the maturation of Brittany Hrynko. The immensely talented junior who could freeze you with a cross-over move as easily as she steps back and buries an NBA 3-pointer earned an invitation to the 2013 USA World University Games Team Trials because of her offensive prowess as a freshman and sophomore.
This season, Bruno challenged Hrynko to become as good a passer as she is a scorer.
“Brit did a great job of finding other people and led the BIG EAST Conference in assists,” said Jenkins, who paired with Hrynko in a dual point guard lineup. “The most important factor in our wins was Brit’s unselfishness and getting the ball to her teammates.
“She was more of a shooting guard last year, but dedicated herself this year to playing the point and also scoring the ball. She has had a lot to deal with the last couple of years, and her ability to focus on what’s best for the team is what makes her such a great player.”
Bruno was encouraged by Hrynko becoming a more complete player.
“Brittany Hrynko did a good job of facilitating and scoring,” Bruno said. “What you saw in our NCAA games against Oklahoma and Duke was Brit taking command of facilitating and scoring.
“Take the shots you can make. Next season, I’m looking forward to Brit taking that facilitating and scoring to an even higher level.”
And, Bruno will keep his fingers crossed that his team will again enjoy a relatively injury-free season.
“Staying healthy was huge, and it was a tribute to our players working hard with our trainer Dave McAuliffe, Chris Dresher of strength and conditioning and our assistant coaches,” Bruno said. “Kelsey Smith provided us with experienced leadership, but was never able to get any momentum going because of her injuries. That was our one drawback, health-wise.”
Four starters (Hrynko, Jenkins, Rogowski, Podkowa) and five of the top six players (including Jessica January) are back next season. Bruno said he is also looking for contributions from Brooke Schulte, Brandi Harvey-Carr, Meri Bennett-Swanson and ShaKeya Graves.
All that returning talent is bolstered by a stellar recruiting class.
“All three incoming guards are tough, competitive players and throw-back type athletes,” Bruno said. “Lauren Prochaska from Trinity is a pure point guard. Ashton Millender from Marian Catholic is a true two-guard. Meghan Waldron of Wheaton Warrenville South can play at either spot and will cut your heart out to beat you.
“Marte Grays is a 6-foot, 2-inch player who will give us size and excellent footwork to play inside. She has great speed, quickness, athleticism, and her length will add impact to our ball press. She can score inside and also step outside and hit the 3-point shot.
“I can’t wait to get Elri Liebenberg from South Africa into our program. She has huge upside and looks to be about 6-feet, 6-inches. Once we measure her, maybe she’s actually 6-7 or 6-8. Elri has a chance to develop into an outstanding post player who can also run the floor and give us another player with live, athletic hops.”
If all goes well, the Blue Demons could duplicate or even surpass the success of 2013-14.
“This was a great season, and it was about finding myself and taking on a bigger role of leadership,” Jenkins said. “We had a great run to the Sweet 16, and I wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else. We became so close as the year progressed.
“It wasn’t like that at the beginning of the season, and maybe that’s why we lost some games back then. But there was a turning point where we came to know each other on a more personal level, and that was a big reason why we went on the nine-game winning streak late in the season.
“Everyone was so unselfish and loved sharing the ball. No one put up an enormous amount of shots or focused on making sure they got theirs. That unselfishness is what made it so special.
"It was like my mom always says: ‘One team, one goal---you have the rest of your life to worry about yourself.’”