By Linda Hamilton, Deseret News sports writer
DePaul University's coach and players thought this business of playing for third place Monday afternoon was kind of small potatoes after losing Saturday's championship semifinal by two points to Indiana State.
And, when the Blue Demons found themselves up easily by 23 points against Penn, a team humbled by Michigan State Saturday, well, they just lost their aggressiveness.
But not third place.
And today, third place looks pretty darned good to the little school from Chicago's north side. "Obviously, it helped the school (recruiting-side) a lot," said senior team co-captain Gary Garland.
DePaul had just dumped Penn 96-93 in overtime in the NCAA consolation basketball game Monday at the U. of U. Special Events Center.
"And as for me," Garland said, "it helped as far as knowing my last year I competed with some of the best players in the country."
And awed quite a few of them. Garland was named all-tournament.
"It took me three quarters of the first half to get read," Garland admitted. "We were depressed. We should have beaten Indiana State; I'm sure we should have."
Coach Ray Meyer agreed. "The third-place game fills in a lot of time," he joked about its importance. "I felt it's a thing we have to do. It was a great emotional letdown after Indiana State. We were capable of beating ISU."
"We just didn't feel like playing for third place. We struggled through it."
Meyer called DePaul's win unartistic but said the club has "dissipated every lead we ever had all year. The lead came too easy. We lacked concentration. You always make mistakes when you're not alert."
DePaul committed 23 turnovers to Penn's 15, and Garland was responsible for nine of them, seven in the second half. "They kinda changed my game," he said of Penn. "They were getting aggressive. We were tired. I was tired. I wanted to sit down, and I think the refs knew I wanted to sit down."
It was the first time this season Garland has fouled out, called for four fouls in the first half.
"That changed the whole complexion of the game when Curtis got his fourth foul," said Meyer. "He had 10 rebounds up until then. And also, when Gary got his fourth foul, he lost a lot of aggressiveness going to the basket. He was a little reluctant to go."
Watkins' injured knee was also responsible for a change. He hadn't practiced all week and tired easily, asking to come out of the game in the first eight minutes. When Dennis McGuire replaced him with 12:33 left in the first half, it was DePaul's first substitution of the Final Four portion of the tournament. The Demons ended up using Chris Nikitas and Bill Madey, too, when Watkins and Garland fouled out.
Watkins' knee "is getting worse," Meyer said post-game.
Although Garland thought his fouls "weren't justified the last one they (officials) could have kept" Penn was hurt most, whistled 31 times to DePaul's 22 and losing four players. Penn coach Bob Weinhauer thought it "strange we didn't get into a one-and-one until the overtime."
Tim Smith, Matt White, Vincent Ross and Tony Price all fouled out for the Quakers, the latter two in the overtime. DePaul freshman Mark Aguirre, like Garland an all-tourney selection, thanked the Quakers for their fouls and won the game with his overtime free throw shooting. He made six of six in the overtime and added a basket on a pretty baseline drive.
Aguirre's two free throws with a minute left in regulation were the last points the Demons scored until the overtime. Just like Saturday's game with Indiana State, DePaul had an opportunity to set up a last-chance game-winner, getting the ball out of bounds with seven seconds to bring it upcourt. But Aguirre's jumper from the free throw line failed.
The Demons had looked a little like Michigan State had Saturday against Penn, jumping to a 27-14 lead on Watkins' rebounding, eight points from Jim Mitchem and six each from Watkins and Aguirre, who finished with a game-high 34 points. DePaul went up by as much as 23, 44-21.
Penn's Tony Price, right behind Aguirre with 31 and 14 rebounds (and ignored in all-tourney voting) had 21 by halftime. Teammate Smith had 12 the second half before fouling out.
"Penn had a lot to prove after the game with Michigan State," Garland said. "They are a much better team than they showed today."
Penn coach Weinhauer spoke of the same emotional letdown DePaul had felt. "We didn't ask anybody to win the game today, just to give effort and show how we are capable of playing. When we came back in the second half, I thought we were going to win. We had more people to go to."
He added Penn's only been blown out twice this season once by Michigan State and once by DePaul.