CHICAGO — If missed layups, bricked free throws, and airballs defined DePaul’s first half Saturday against Western Michigan, active defense and aggressive offense defined the second. The Blue Demons erased a 12-point deficit in the second half to escape with a 69-63 victory in their first game under new head coach Dave Leitao.
The Blue Demons missed several scoring opportunities in the first half with four botched layups and five misses at the foul line.
The team also settled for 18 jumpers in the first period, which disappointed Leitao.
“I’ve seen it a million times where you just want to make a 10-point basket,” Leitao said. “You think if you can see the ball go in, and you shoot a jump shot and it goes in, everything will be good. And that’s not how it goes. So we just had to work harder at getting better and easier shots. … It wasn’t the time or place to start settling.”
Leitao felt junior point guard Billy Garrett Jr. was getting the team into the offense too slowly, setting up the Blue Demons for poor possessions.
While the offense stagnated in the halfcourt, Western Michigan turned the ball over only four times in the first 20 minutes, denying DePaul chances for transition buckets.
“I think in the first half our effort was there, but we were making a lot of mental mistakes,” Garrett said. “It just took some time to get comfortable.”
From the start of the second half, the Blue Demons had greater energy on the defensive side and used active hands to force 10 turnovers. They turned those 10 miscues into eight points.
In addition to struggling with ball control, the Broncos did not get many high-quality looks at the hoop down the stretch.
“We want to make (defense) our calling card,” Garrett said. “Defense wins games. Defense wins championships. That’s what we need to be successful.”
After torching DePaul with 46.4 percent shooting in the first half, Western Michigan shot 26.9 percent in the second half. Only junior guard Tucker Haymond, who netted 24 points on 8-of-17 was a reliable scoring option after halftime.
Haymond shot 3-of-7 in the second period while the rest of Broncos were a lackluster 4-of-19.
DePaul left the perimeter unguarded at times in order to protect the paint, and that strategy worked. Western Michigan shot 6-of-28 (21.4 percent) from deep and scored only 18 points in the paint to DePaul’s 30.
“We play percentages, and the percentages say when the ball is in the paint, that’s not good,” Leitao said. “So we’ve got to do as good a job as we can possibly do at making the other team shoot jump shots with a hand in their face.”
While the Broncos stalled, Garrett and senior forward Myke Henry took charge to put the Blue Demons ahead. Garrett scored 14 of his 18 points and Henry contributed 10 of his 16 points in the second half.
“We saw (the referees) kept calling touch fouls, so we just drive the ball and get the foul line,” Henry said.
Both players got more aggressive after halftime, and Garrett made a living at the foul line, where he shot 10-of-11.
“It was just taking what the defense gave me and not thinking too much,” Garrett said. “In the first half, that got us in trouble, we weren’t as aggressive, taking a lot of jump shots. I was just being aggressive.”
DePaul’s lead reached as many as 10 points with 3:31 remaining, but Western Michigan fought back to close the gap to six points with just more than two minutes to play.
Junior guard Darrick Wood took the reigns with a pair of layups to put the game out of the Broncos’ reach in the final minute.
“Everybody across the country is trying to figure themself out right now,” Leitao said. “My fear was that you don’t try to learn or find out where you’re at with a loss. It’s a growing step, I’m gonna treat it as such. We’ve got so many things we’ve got to get better at, as does everybody else in the country. So we’ve got our fair share of work to do.”