DePaul had lost seven of eight coming into Saturday’s tilt with No. 13 Butler, putting forth a series of efforts as weak as the January sun.
But for almost 40 minutes against the Bulldogs, the Blue Demons seemed to have found a bright spot in what has been a trying season. Somehow, it still all managed to unravel.
In a game that DePaul led big early, gave it all up and then seemed in control for most of the second half, fate seemed to intervene, and the Bulldogs (17-3, 6-2 Big East) eventually topped the Blue Demons (8-12, 1-6) in overtime 70-69.
In the process, DePaul spoiled a career day from sophomore guard Eli Cain, who posted 32 points, and a golden opportunity against a Butler team that came out flat and never truly found a rhythm.
Butler’s five starters finished 45 minutes of game time with just 38 points. Junior forward Kelan Martin, the Bulldogs’ leading scorer, shot only 3-of-13 from the field.
“Our energy was there,” DePaul coach Dave Leitao said. “We guarded the ball a little tougher today.”
Early on, Cain was hitting shots from everywhere, Butler’s stars were in foul trouble and the large contingent of fans Butler brought north sat silently.
Meanwhile, Butler’s offense looked stagnant as DePaul forced the Bulldogs into long possessions and difficult shots. Cain’s third three of the game pushed DePaul’s lead to 25-5 with 12:52 to go in the first frame, igniting a characteristically small crowd of 6,713 at Allstate Arena and giving DePaul the largest lead it would hold on the afternoon.
“We were having trouble making shots,” Butler coach Chris Holtmann said. “We have good shooters that are just struggling a little bit shooting the ball right now.”
But Butler weathered the storm, leaning on its bench to respond. The Bulldogs managed a quick 16-1 run with 14 of those points coming from the bench. All told, Butler’s bench accounted for 21 points in the opening frame and DePaul’s lead had shrunk to two by halftime.
In the second half, Blue Demons senior guard Billy Garrett Jr. shook off a quiet first half in which he recorded just one point and lost three turnovers. He hit a pair of triples and a mid-range jumper early in the second, helping the DePaul find some breathing room after Butler’s late first-half push.
The Blue Demons led by as much as nine in the second, and continued to make Butler uncomfortable on its offensive possessions.
But DePaul’s offense ground to a halt and stalled for almost the entire final quarter of regulation. Butler took a one-point lead with just over two minutes to play when senior guard Avery Woodson canned a 3-pointer. After Garrett made 1-of-2 on a trip to the free throw line, the game stood locked at 58 going into regulation’s final moments.
The final ticks played out almost comically. Butler got to the foul line twice, but whiffed on 3-of-4 freebies, and Cain had a chance to likely give his team the win when he was fouled a couple seconds left. But he too missed a free throw, knotting the game at 59-59 and sending it to overtime.
DePaul did not hit a field goal in the final 13 minutes of regulation.
Cain changed that in overtime by returning to his first half form, hitting a tough driving layup and then canning a 3 moments later.
“I just kept playing basketball,” Cain said. “I knew my teammates were going to find me.”
But the overtime period went back and forth. With 3.7 seconds to go Butler led by 1, and DePaul coach Dave Leitao had removed both his jacket and tie while contesting calls. The Blue Demons again needed a bucket to stay alive. This time, Garrett got the call, and he couldn’t deliver, missing a last second heave from deep as time expired.
“The ball slipped a little bit,” Garrett said. “I got a decent look at the basket, it just didn’t fall.”
And the Blue Demons keep slipping in conference play, though DePaul has taken a pair of the conference’s elite programs to the wire — Villanova in late December and now Butler.
Against Butler, the Blue Demons trailed for just 1:41.
“It’s a very unforgiving league,” Leitao said. “You’ve got to bring it…you’ve got to bring your energy, you’ve got to bring your intent of what you’re trying to do and to be able to execute it. I thought we did that. We came up a few plays short.”