SOUTH BEND, IND. – There were no surprise twists, no secrets laid bare. The Gophers knew in advance what they would face in the first round of the NCAA tournament: a swarming, frantic pressure defense that DePaul’s tireless team would maintain for all 40 minutes.
They withstood it for 25 of those, building a 15-point lead with just more than 15 minutes left in Friday’s game. “I felt like we were playing good and handling the press,” senior Shae Kelley said. “We just stopped taking care of the ball.”
Once they wobbled, the Gophers collapsed, falling 79-72 to the Blue Demons at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion. DePaul’s full-court pressure induced 28 turnovers — including 15 in the second half — and when its outside shooting heated up, the Gophers were doomed to a quick exit in the Oklahoma City Region in their first NCAA tournament game since 2009.
No. 9 seed DePaul (27-7) had been down this road before, winning its 13th NCAA tournament game in its 13th consecutive appearance. The Gophers’ inexperience showed as their lead melted away during a horrific five-minute stretch. Up 49-34, they were outscored 19-2 while missing five of six shots and turning the ball over five times.
Center Amanda Zahui B. led the Gophers (23-10) with 21 points and 22 rebounds, while an improved Gophers defense shut down DePaul’s sharpshooters in the first half. But the dogged Blue Demons wore them down and moved on to the second round, where they will play top seed Notre Dame on Sunday.
“I don’t think we kept our composure,’’ guard Shayne Mullaney said. “We needed to focus on being patient and poised with their press, and in the second half, we handled it very differently than the first.
“It’s heartbreaking, knowing we had the lead and thinking we were going to build on it in the second half. They went on a run, and we couldn’t get ourselves back up there with them.”
DePaul coach Doug Bruno, coaching his 32nd game in the NCAA tournament, said his team didn’t conjure any March magic. He thought the Gophers were exhausted at halftime, and he told the Blue Demons they would win if they tended to details and followed their standard recipe of good outside shooting and unrelenting pressure.
After making only two of 20 three-point attempts in the first half, DePaul started to connect as the Gophers faltered. They made six of 14 in the final 20 minutes, including three during their rally.
“I actually didn’t think our defense was particularly good in the first half and at the beginning of the second half,’’ Bruno said. “Maybe the 15-point deficit was the best thing that could have happened to us, because it really showed [his players] that our backs were going to be up against the wall, and they were going to have to fight to have a chance to win.”
Gophers coach Marlene Stollings had been focusing on that pressure defense in practices over the past three days. Though the Gophers committed 13 turnovers in the first half, they took a 41-30 halftime lead by holding DePaul to 31 percent shooting, outrebounding it 26-16 and hitting nine of 10 free throws. The Blue Demons went through one five-minute stretch without making a basket and connected on only three of their first 17 shots.
But early in the second half, Stollings could see the Gophers’ energy flagging. That spelled trouble against a Blue Demons defense that never let up.
“We knew they were going to make a run at some point,’’ Stollings said. “The run continued on for most of the half once they got in their groove. I thought we stayed a little bit rattled. We had a couple moments, but we never really strung together a solid three-minute period from that point on.”