Commentary

Passing fancy leads DePaul into UConn

Only unbeaten teams in Big East clash Saturday, when Huskies host Blue Demons

Originally Published: February 3, 2011
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

If eight seconds of basketball can sum up a lifetime of work, the result might look something like a sequence early in the first half of DePaul's game against West Virginia on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeSam Quigley
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireFifth-year senior Sam Quigley helps DePaul rank fourth in the nation in assists per game and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio.

The Blue Demons' Katherine Harry rebounded a Mountaineers miss and sent an outlet pass to point guard Sam Quigley, waiting a few feet from the baseline on the far side of the lane. Quigley turned, took one dribble and fired a one-handed pass to Felicia Chester, hitting her in stride as she crossed over the Blue Demons logo at midcourt. Chester took one dribble as momentum carried her forward and passed the ball across the court to Anna Martin, spotting up beyond the 3-point line. Drawing the lone West Virginia defender with a shot fake, Martin passed back to Chester, who had continued her run through the lane. With only teammate Keisha Hampton near her, Chester calmly finished the break with a layup.

Eight seconds, four passes, two dribbles and two more points en route to a surprisingly easy 78-55 victory against a team ranked No. 8 at the time. For No. 13 DePaul, it adds up to a 21-2 record entering Saturday's road game against No. 2 Connecticut. The Huskies are clearly the favorites in Storrs, as they are any time they play in either of their Connecticut home venues, but at the very least, it's not often they take the court against a team that passes the ball as well as they do.

The essence of Doug Bruno's basketball belief system isn't complicated, but sometimes elegance is the product of simplicity executed with precision.

"He always tells us, 'You have the greenest green light in America to shoot. But when a teammate's open, you should hit your teammate every time,'" Hampton recounted. "If I'm open, I'll take my shot, but if my teammate is open and I know that I can get it to them, I'll get them the ball. Just sharing the ball is such a huge part of what we do. Just pass it to the open man."

We do recruit people that can handle the ball and have the ability to pass. We value assists -- it's the single stat that we value the most in our program. It's a team statistic. We never say we're going to lead the nation in scoring, but we have a specific goal to lead the nation in assists, because if you're sharing the basketball then you're going to be scoring the basketball.

-- DePaul coach Doug Bruno

The play against West Virginia summed up what Bruno and the Blue Demons are about, but the proof of such success is far from merely anecdotal. DePaul is fourth in the nation in assists per game and fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio (it's no coincidence that the top five in each category are the same, or that DePaul, Connecticut, Green Bay, Gonzaga and Marist own a combined 100-10 record this season).

Quigley, a fifth-year senior who earlier this season passed her sister, Allie, for third all time in assists at DePaul, leads the way, but only one of the nine players averaging better than 10 minutes per game has more turnovers than assists.

"We do recruit people that can handle the ball and have the ability to pass," Bruno said. "We value assists -- it's the single stat that we value the most in our program. It's a team statistic. We never say we're going to lead the nation in scoring, but we have a specific goal to lead the nation in assists because if you're sharing the basketball then you're going to be scoring the basketball.

"We want to develop a program where people really value sharing with one another and understand that this game, the beauty of the game, is a team that shares. We never want one player to lead the nation in assists, either. We try to have our assists spread out over our entire ball club."

When the Blue Demons upset second-ranked Stanford before Christmas, they finished the game with more assists than turnovers, something only Tennessee and Gonzaga likewise managed against the Cardinal. And Bruno's team got two or more assists from five players in that win, speaking to the idea that every player is a distributor when the ball is in her hands.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Pikes
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhTaylor Pikes is one of eight DePaul players with at least 32 assists this season, and one of six players averaging at least 7.6 ppg.

The up-and-down, high-scoring, free-flowing style that such a philosophy creates was part of what attracted Keisha Hampton to DePaul when the program showed interest in the Philadelphia high schooler earlier than many other big programs from power conferences. A starter from her first game in the Windy City, the junior is now averaging 15.6 points per game, the closest thing to a star on a team that prides itself on not having one. Recently named to the Wade Trophy watch list, it was Hampton who scored a game-high 27 points against Stanford, showing off her range with a pair of 3-pointers and her athleticism in earning 13 trips to the free-throw line. She's also third on the team in assists, missing a tie for second by a single assist, and four away from matching her career high in the category. And that last part, in addition to a distinct reduction in the fouls that led to six disqualifications last season, might be better indications of her growth than career-high scoring.

"Playing in high school, that's all you know -- they give you the ball, you go score," Hampton said. "Coming to DePaul, we're so oriented as a team, I found I can play within a team concept and share the ball, knowing that I have my teammates there to help me. I don't have to worry about doing it myself."

Saturday will be difficult, but so were the home games against Stanford and West Virginia and the road victory at St. John's. For that matter, so was playing last season so shorthanded that Quigley averaged 38.3 minutes per game. The Blue Demons, whose five seniors are all in at least their fifth year (Deirdre Naughton, who recently returned to the lineup, is in her sixth year), are finally healthy and have the remainder of the season to see what that means.

So a road game at Connecticut? Sure, it's a tall order, but don't expect the Blue Demons to pass. They do enough of that on the court.

"Everybody talks about having five fifth-year seniors and they make jokes about it -- we're senior citizens, we get senior-citizen discounts," Bruno said. "They joke about how old we are, but we've paid the price to be old, in that we have not had this group together. Everybody's been missing -- we've been missing one or more of these players because of injuries. They have done a great job of fighting through the adversity of injuries over the last four or five years."

Call it shared sacrifice.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.