By Rhiannon Potkey LCH Correspondent LAS VEGAS – If DePaul re-establishes itself as one of the Top 25 teams in the country, it can credit a lengthy journey out West as the launching point. Reeling from the loss of two senior guards, the Blue Demons found their identity somewhere between California and Las Vegas. They capped their 12-day, 11-night road trip by destroying host UNLV 82-48 to capture the Duel in the Desert tournament title on Monday night at Cox Pavilion. The tournament’s competitive slate of games ended on the opposite end of the spectrum with back-to-back blowouts as Florida State routed Hawaii 83-39 to take third place.
DePaul began its West Coast trip inauspiciously with an 96-60 loss to No. 2 Stanford in Palo Alto, but the Blue Demons greatly brightened their outlook at the Duel in the Desert.
They opened with a one-point win over Arkansas and beat then-No. 10 Florida State 75-60 in the semifinal to hand the Seminoles their first loss of the season.
“Stanford schooled us, but when you get schooled like that you can either learn from it or wallow in self pity and I think our players did a great job of rebounding from the Stanford spanking to win this tournament,” DePaul head coach Doug Bruno said. “I was really impressed at how they came back and rose from the ashes.”
Entering December, the Blue Demons were in a state of flux after losing two of their top players to knee injuries.
Senior Deirdre Naughton, a preseason Wade Watch List selection, tore the ACL in her right knee during a loss to Northwestern on Nov. 24, and senior China Threatt, last season’s Big East Sixth Woman of the Year, has not returned from a knee injury suffered last year.
After the loss to Stanford, Bruno let the captains decide whether to return to Chicago or remain on the road.
They opted for the latter, and it proved to be a great bonding experience.
The team visited Alcatraz Island, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Redwoods while in Northern California and toured Hoover Dam while in Las Vegas.
The road trip was the longest in Bruno’s 24 seasons at DePaul.
“I told my assistants when the captains made the decision to stay, ‘When this is done with, it will either be the best thing we ever did or the worst thing we ever did,'” Bruno said. “It’s turned out to be the best thing we’ve ever done.”
DePaul junior guard Sam Quigley was happy to see her team’s off-the-court cohesion translate into victories on the court.
“I feel like we are really getting comfortable with each other and have had a chance to see what kind of team we are,” said Quigley, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “Every game and every practice we are finding ourselves. We have faced some adversity, but I feel like we have grown and we have kind of overcome it a little bit.”
Although her team was never in contention against DePaul, UNLV head coach Kathy Olivier believes playing against Big East Conference competition was extremely beneficial.
“DePaul just played so aggressive and they swarmed it defensively,” Olivier said. “We talked about making our team better, and this is going to make our team better by playing against these types of opponents.”
Olivier said the inaugural Duel in the Desert received mostly positive reviews. But the tournament suffered from unfortunate scheduling.
During the first two days, another women’s event – The Holiday Hoops Classic – was taking place only a few miles away with a stronger field featuring No. 5 Baylor, No. 10 Texas A&M, No. 18 Arizona State and Gonzaga.
“I definitely wouldn’t like to have to compete with another tournament, but I think it’s good for the community to get a feel for women’s basketball,” Olivier said. “We have some of the best teams in the country here, so you could make a choice. But of course, I want everyone in this building, and this tournament is only going to get better every year. Next year we have some great talent coming in.”