LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Few of the thousands of fans at Sunday's NCAA tournament second-round game between No. 3 seed Louisville and sixth-seeded DePaul would have been foolish enough to take the lower seed for granted.
Cardinals coach Jeff Walz cautioned against it before the game, and the memories of Big East and Conference USA battles before the schools parted company shouldn't be too distant.
If nothing else, the fans surely remembered the torrid shooting DePaul used to roll to a first-round win.
Here more than almost anywhere, no one took the Blue Demons for granted.
But someone who arrived on the banks of the Ohio River on Sunday afternoon with no prior knowledge of the situation could have been forgiven for watching the two teams warm up and wondering if it might be a dull show. One team was the product of its own recent Final Four success and the might and means of the ACC, Louisville's roster stocked with prized recruits. DePaul's lineup looked small by comparison, even before its two best post players folded themselves into chairs on the bench because of foul trouble.
One team looked like a No. 3 seed, the other like a No. 6 seed. Just as one team often looked the part to Doug Bruno years ago when DePaul's coach first took teams to Europe or brought those teams to Chicago.
"When you watched them in warm-ups it looked like we're going to win by 30," Bruno recalled of his European counterparts in those days. "And then you play the game and they win by 30. Well, why? Because they space the floor, they made 3s and they made you guard."
So when the coach said after DePaul beat Louisville 73-72 -- the most consequential upset of the first two and a half days of the NCAA tournament -- that the Blue Demons just did what they do, he meant they did that.
He meant they played a style that suited the needs of a small Catholic school in the heart of Chicago long before that style was all the rage.
One look at Bruno, whose dress shirts bearing the DePaul logo sacrifice fashion for school pride, make clear he is not one to latch onto whatever might be the newest trend.
"I get a kick out of the people who say we play like Golden State," Bruno said. "Golden State plays like us. We don't have Steph Curry. But at the same time we've been playing this way a long, long time."
The Blue Demons have played that way since before Jessica January arrived. Probably since before the junior guard was born, come to think of it. But they didn't need Curry on Sunday because they had her. January's 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting from the field, her total including 18 points in the first half and the decisive free throw with 14 seconds left, propelled DePaul to the win.
"This was definitely the most intense game I've ever played in," January said. "It was so awesome being able to play in front of all these fans. I've never played in front of this many people. Just the energy was unbelievable. And playing against Louisville, who is an amazing team. They're so good, they're so talented, they're really aggressive. It was such a challenge, but it was so fun playing out there with my teammates."
That intensity was evident from the tip, bodies crashing to the court from the outset. This was fantastic postseason basketball. It was the kind of game Louisville's Walz said should still bother his players in May, the painful memories fueling their offseason. It was the kind of game that fans will grumble about for years to come, two late fouls that went against the home team instrumental in denying Louisville its comeback and confirming DePaul's win.
Did Louisville's Briahanna Jackson, seconds after she tied the score in the final minute, foul January as the two players leaped in pursuit of the same inbounds pass? Did Myisha Hines-Allen charge as she drove toward Chanise Jenkins for the potential winning points with seconds left?
"[January] is a three-level guard. She can shoot the 3, she can drive it, she's got a mid-range game. And then Jess has a special and unique ability to get her shot off over anybody."DePaul associate coach Jill Pizzotti on Jessica January
If you're looking for answers here, you will be disappointed. Like the game, the calls could have gone either way. Louisville players didn't think they fouled. DePaul players thought they were fouled. There were no surprises in the comments and few revelations in the replays.
Time is better spent looking at how DePaul was in position to benefit from those calls in the first place, especially given that this is the third time in the past six seasons that it reached the Sweet 16 after beating a favorite on that team's home court in the second round.
Louisville put itself in position to win Sunday's game with a strong fourth quarter, and a strong game from a player in Jackson who is often overshadowed by those around her.
Yet DePaul keeps finding itself in position to win these kind of games, on this occasion as the result of a first half in which it shot better than 50 percent from the field and an individual performance by January that came entirely within the design of the team.
"We had a tough last half of the fourth quarter," Bruno said. "But we also put ourselves in a position to be up 10."
They did it with a lineup that looked, at the risk of offending both the Blue Demons and the Big East they still call home, like a mid-major team. DePaul doesn't have a lot of size to begin with, and most of what it had sat on the bench in foul trouble for long stretches Sunday. More stretch fours than true post players to begin with, Megan Podkowa and Jacqui Grant combined for only nine points and four rebounds.
So the Blue Demons played small, as usual.
"I really love the players we get at DePaul," Bruno said. "What we've never been able to get, the big, strong, sit-down-in-the-post post player."
What are available, if you look carefully, are guards like January (or like Big East player of the year Jenkins or Allie Quigley before them).
"Coach Bruno talks about three-level guards," associate coach Jill Pizzotti said. "When you have all three parts, you're really hard to guard. So [January] is a three-level guard. She can shoot the 3, she can drive it, she's got a mid-range game. And then Jess has a special and unique ability to get her shot off over anybody. She's just a tough one to handle because she can rise up and literally shoot over players.
"There's not a lot of players who can do that."
"I get a kick out of the people who say we play like Golden State. Golden State plays like us. We don't have Steph Curry. But at the same time we've been playing this way a long, long time."Coach Doug Bruno, on DePaul's style of play
After a slow start that left it behind 7-0, put on its heels by the intensity of a Louisville team told for two days it didn't play hard enough in the first round, DePaul regrouped. The Cardinals played with energy, but they also went under too many screens and struggled to close down lanes when stretched thin by the Blue Demons.
If there was a play that summed up the game it might have been when Jenkins, all 5 feet, 5 inches of her snuck into the lane for an offensive rebound in the second half. Momentarily unguarded, she could have taken a pretty good shot in the middle of the lane. Instead she kicked the ball out to January, left open at the top of the key when the defense failed to react. January hit the 3-pointer, her only 3-pointer of the second half, and another Louisville run was halted.
"A good shot is, I guess, if you're a good shooter, whenever you can get open," January said. "But a great shot is when you have good ball movement and your teammates make the extra pass or take the extra dribble to get another person the ball."
DePaul runs, but it can't be defined as a running team. It shoots 3-pointers, but it can't be defined as a 3-point shooting team. Everything it does is in pursuit of space and shots.
Asked after the loss what she could learn from it, Louisville sophomore Mariya Moore marveled that DePaul never seemed to miss an open shot. She said she needed to get in the gym and get better at making her own open shots. That's part of it, to be sure. But only part of it.
"Just learning to be patient and really just have the ability to hit the open woman is something I've learned to do since I got here," January said.
Basketball keeps changing. Teams change conferences. Styles come and go. What doesn't seems to rarely change are the way Bruno plays the game and the results it produces -- or at least the results it puts in play.
No one could have been better prepared for that than Walz or Louisville. They knew DePaul can play the part. And it did just that again.