The Blue Demons Within

My views from a non-conference battle with sentimental value.

I went down to Wintrust Arena with my girlfriend on Friday to check out Western Illinois-DePaul. It’s a matchup that holds sentimental value for me on both sides. Western is my alma mater and DePaul is one of four local Division I sides (along with Illinois, UIC, and Chicago State) that raised me throughout my basketball childhood.

It’s only the fourth meeting all-time between these programs, with three of them coming in the last three seasons. That “last three years” part is conterminous with Rob Jeter’s tenure as head coach in Macomb.

It’s not a coincidence, as he grew up in Chicago. I assume he uses the game to come back home, catch up with friends and family, and maybe even use it as a recruiting trip. One of his players – senior Quinlan Bennett – is already from the city, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Jeter trying to tap into Chicagoland’s deep player base.

The quirky thing about this game is its 9:00 PM tip-off time. Real “College Basketball After Dark” vibes. Shoutout to anyone that attended the game then seamlessly transitioned over to VU once the final buzzer sounded shortly after 11:00.

However, there was actually method to the madness. WIU-DePaul was the last leg of a Big East triple-header that aired on FS2. Boston U.-UConn at 5:00 PM Central, Montana-Xavier at 7:00, and Western Illinois-DePaul at 9:00 PM. I guess that’s the lumps you take when you’re one of the westernmost schools in the Big East Conference.

The game itself was a mid-tempo matchup of two athletic squads. Both teams had speedy, bouncy players that pulled off a bouquet of dunks and alley-oops throughout the night. Western’s Jesiah West was the standout. It seemed like he floated every time he leapt. However, it felt like DePaul had the bigger bodies.

Comparing the rosters doesn’t reveal a stark difference in size, but in my eyes the listed heights and weights of 6’10” Yor Anei, 6’8″ Da’Sean Nelson, and the 6’6″ duo of Javan Johnson and Eral Penn belie their true frames.

This matchup was energetic and fairly competitive. DePaul’s Umoja Gibson started off the game hot, hitting his first three shots and finishing the first half with 17 points. The Blue Demons led 32-18 with 7:36 left in the half, but the Leatherneck reeled off a 17-8 run to get the deficit down to five with 1:19 remaining. A couple of DePaul free throws gave the Demons a 42-35 lead at half.

Trenton Massner, WIU’s senior leader and offensive engine, didn’t have the best first half. He had eight points, six rebounds, two assists, and a steal. However, he accumulated those points while shooting 3-of-9 from the field (2-of-7 from 3-point range).

Then, with 2:12 in the first half, he ran into a hard screen by Da’Sean Nelson that left him on the ground for an extended amount of time. He was sidelined for the rest of the game.

His absence was apparent in the second half, even as Western’s other two senior leaders attempted to step-up for Massner. Quinlan Bennett operated the offense and served as the lead communicator on defense while Alec Rosner dropped 16 points in the second half.

WIU struggled from three-point range throughout the game – finishing 6-of-26 from distance – so there was a stretch in the second where they kept forcing the issue inside. As a result, Yor Anei came away with four of his five blocks in the second half. This helped the Blue Demons start the half on a 25-8 run, extending their advantage to 67-47 with 9:14 remaining.

Umoja Gibson tacked on seven points in the half, finishing the night with 24 points, eight assists. He went 4-of-5 on two-pointers, 4-of-5 on three-pointers, and 4-of-4 on free throws. Gibson was so comfortable operating the offense, using his speed and playmaking to terrorize the Leathernecks. He routinely beat Western players off the dribble, either getting downhill for a score or assist, or to step-back and create space for an open jumper. Truly impressive stuff.

After the big run, DePaul coasted to the finish for an 86-74 victory. It’s always an enjoyable experience, but it’s a bummer how quick it all feels sometimes. I got to the game about five minutes into the first half, and then once the buzzer sounded I was back out the door into the nippy, Chicago night. It’s a feeling I get with any basketball game. In the moment, the atmosphere is electric and the action is always exciting. Then, just like that, it’s over.

It is what it is, though. The game can’t last forever. It’s for this reason that you should cherish any game you watch or attend. This was my first live Western game since 2014 and my first live DePaul game ever. So I’m especially grateful that I got the chance to witness two teams that mean a lot to me facing off in a competitive clash.

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