When Dave Leitao was re-introduced to the DePaul community at a March press conference located in DePaul’s Student Center, Leitao didn’t shy away from mentioning the NCAA tournament.
“The ultimate goal is to reach the NCAA tournament,” Leitao said. “And that’s what we’re going to do. It’s going to be really, really soon. What we will do every day will speak to that.”
It’s been so long since the Blue Demons made the NCAA tournament — 12 seasons, in fact — that it’s hard to imagine what a postseason is like at DePaul for men’s basketball. In that gap, the men have made just two National Invitational Tournament (NIT) appearances as well.
But for a school with a basketball history like DePaul, it’s the NCAA tournament that should arguably be the standard every year.
Yet, the last team to do so took place during the 2003-04 season. That team was a tough-nosed, scrappy team whose chemistry lifted DePaul to its first tournament win since 1989. The team relied largely on five starters — Sammy Mejia, Drake Diener, Delonte Holland, Quemont Greer and Andre Brown — for that toughness, with two bench players, LeVar Seals and Marlon Brumfield, also playing a major part in the rotation. Its coaching staff, made up of assistants Gene Cross, Josh Oppenheimer and Tyler Jones, helped further instill the grittiness set by their head coach.
The man at the helm was none other than Leitao.
Following the 2001-02 season, the Blue Demons finished the year 9-29 and decided to make a change. They fired then head coach Pat Kennedy and the program was in need of a makeover. They looked towards an up-and-coming coach looking to prove himself. The man for the job? An assistant under the highly regarded Jim Calhoun, Dave Leitao. In his first year, Leitao was successful with a 16-13 record and taking the Blue Demons to the NIT.
Quemont Greer, forward: Once (Kennedy) resigned and Coach Leitao was named coach, a lot of us didn’t know a lot about him. We just knew he was an assistant at UConn.
Drake Diener, guard: We were really, really talented. [But] we didn’t have any discipline.
Greer: At the time, there was a lot of individualism. Coming in as a high school All-American, coming into that situation. Everyone was on their own individual island.
Jean Lenti Ponsetto, athletic director: I had some familiarity with who Dave was. I spent a lot of time at Connecticut when I was on the NCAA women’s selection committee and I watched Jim Calhoun’s team practice. I saw the way Dave had a terrific way with student athletes and the way he helped run the team.
Andre Brown, forward: I remember meeting him with my mom after my sophomore season. We had a sit down talk with him. I remember him being a real cool guy. He really sold me on staying … He sold me on staying because I wanted to be a part of what he wanted to build and it was a fresh start.
Greer: When (Leitao) came in to the university, he brought everybody down as one. He made everybody realize we were here for a purpose.
Diener: (The NIT) season was really, really a grind. When I’m playing overseas, I still have conversations with guys and other players overseas about different coaching styles you played for. And I’m always proud to say in explaining what our work ethic was and what Dave Leitao put us through, even though that sounds terrible.
Greer: It was a huge turnaround from (my freshman year) we went 9-19. He got everybody to buy in and he maxed out our potential. After that 16-13 year where we went to the NIT, with the group of guys we had coming back, everyone was focused on making the tournament.
Coming off an NIT season for the 2002-03 year, DePaul was looking to end a four-year drought where they hadn’t made the NCAA tournament. With largely the same number of players returning the following year, it was a question of how much of a jump DePaul could take.
Dave Leitao, head coach: We always set the bar high for ourselves, not necessarily to make the tournament, it was to be as good as we could be. So I thought within the walls of the locker room, that’s kind of our sacred bond and that’s what we talked about. On the outside, you know I think in year two, there was still a lot of unknown.
Gene Cross, assistant: You know, it’s funny, I think everybody expected us to have that kind of team with everybody coming back.
Diener: I personally remember thinking it being my junior year and thinking that was a really talented team we had, and I didn’t want to go through my whole career of not taking DePaul to the NCAAs or not having that experience. That’s what you think about when thinking about college basketball. That postseason march.
Steve Newhouse, WeAreDePaul.com: I think everybody knew that they were going to be better than the year before, but the question was how much better. You have to remember they were up against some pretty good competition. They were playing Cincinnati, UAB, St. Louis, Memphis, Marquette. You’d end up with a lot of teams from Conference USA making it in the tournament.
Diener: I think we were really excited about Sammy (Mejia). We could tell he was really good.
Sammy Mejia, guard: (College) is the first time you play basketball at such a high level. It’s a lot of excitement about playing at that level for the first time. It was the first time I got to meet a lot guys who could play like that.
Cross: I remember when recruiting Sammy, he was just a shy, religious kid from New York who didn’t know anything about Chicago. He trusted in us saying “we’re gonna get you the ball and teach you to play this position.”
Diener: We were good friends. We came from very different backgrounds. One thing we had in common is that we were both big family people. I don’t have a really big family, but I’m really close to my family. He has a family that’s very, very close as well. We had that in common. We always got along good. I still keep in touch with him to this day.
Leitao: Each year has watershed moments and I think that group had a couple of important ones and early on, we were just trying to find our character. I’ll always remember the one thing about that group is it happened here in (a conference room). Just revealing what we were about, where we came from, sharing some things that they’ve never shared before.
Cross: Coach has been around the game so long and has been around so many good coaches, he was very good at understanding the psychology behind and he was hardcore as you want your coach to be, but he also pulled back a little bit. He nurtured when he needed to nurture. So I think for him, he understood when someone needed an arm around him.
Leitao: One of the things I remember to this day, one of the guys on the team, LeVar Seals — his dad was a very important part of the team too because he was around a lot. (Seal’s dad’s) quote was “In order to go to a place you’ve never been, you have to do something you’ve never done.” And that was brought to my attention. We used that to step out of our comfort zone and do things we normally didn’t do to attain a goal.
Greer: During non-conference play, Leitao got us prepared mentally for our opponents we were playing early on. It prepared us for the conference. At the time, Conference USA was one of the best in the country.
Cross: Any time you have a group, there’s an ebb and a flow. There’s growing pains in a season. You have to find your identity and it was a matter of finding our identity.
Diener: I remember playing Bradley at home and we were down 20. We came back and won. But it’s Bradley so it’s almost like we dodged a bullet.
Leitao: I thought we were pretty good. The schedule didn’t always dictate that. We played some difficult games, but at the same point in time I don’t think anybody — not just me, but more importantly the guys on the team — gave up the hope and promise that we could be pretty good.
Greer: (The game vs. No. 3 Michigan State) I remember pretty good. We came out and fought hard. I actually had a pretty good game. It was sort of like a breakout game in that moment. We played, it was a learning experience since we played in the Michigan State.
Mejia: That was awesome to me. That’s something I’ve always wanted. That’s probably the only ambition that I had. I wanted to play against “the big name schools” in big name arenas.
Brown: You kind of knew where you’re at when you play against those teams, or the so called teams who are elites. We felt like we were right there. We felt like we were good, you know? The sky was the limit for us, and we were so on Dave Leitao and everything he was teaching us. [editor’s note: DePaul lost 89-81]
Greer: (Leitao) got on us (during a three-game losing streak) first of all. At that point, everybody knew how important winning was. Before in the first couple of years, we didn’t understand winning or know how to win.
Diener: It’s not pretty. It wasn’t a lot of fun when things weren’t going good. You’re practicing really long and hard.
Newhouse: Back then (Leitao) was really tough and he would get in guys’ faces. He had no problem screaming and yelling at them and everything. He was definitely a task master, he would yell a lot.
Diener: We also lost to Toledo at home and I do remember being somewhat worried and fearful. If you’re going to be good, you can’t lose at home to Toledo. Basically each year my freshman and sophomore year, we lost a game to a team we should have beat. I remember thinking, ‘here we go again.’
Greer: (Andre Brown) had a knee injury and missed a couple of games.
Brown: It was another setback man because I just came off an injury (from the year before) … I was down you know because I was like, I want to go out and play. I had so much to show. I had so much to offer the team and I wanted to make it to the NBA. I’m thinking about so many things and this injury slowed me down and I felt stuck.
Mejia: We put a lot of pressure on Marlon Brumfield. He was having a lot of issues himself with that stretch. We tried to get the most out of him without hurting him as well. That was a stretch of the season that brought us closer together.
Lenti Ponsetto: Marlon Brumfield is probably the biggest example of (Leitao having an impact) because most people wouldn’t have known that Marlon had the potential to be a really good rebounder. He was a really good defensive stopper.
Marlon Brumfield, forward: Whenever I got my chance, I made sure to play hard. I wasn’t the focus of the offense when I got in, so I knew defense and rebounding was a big focus so that’s what I tried to do when I got in. My freshman year, I was injured the whole year so I spent most of my time working my way back.
Mejia: At (two games into conference play), we were 7-6. Obviously we felt like we shouldn’t have been in that position. We feel like we gave up some games that we deserved to win based on simple mistakes and lack of mental concentration. Leitao just tried to keep us positive and emphasize that everything could be turned around.
Leitao: Learning from those losses and understanding that, ‘hey, if we do X, Y and Z better than you know that good things can happen.’ I think they believed it more than anybody.
When conference play began, DePaul started to roll. By the end of January, they were 11-7, but they were finally picking up steam. What followed was a tremendous February where they finished the month 8-1. It all started to click.
Mejia: Oh man. I just remember being in a groove. We were just like having fun out there. We just got so comfortable out there as a team that we knew each other so well. We were just playing out of instinct.
Cross: There’s a one-on-one rebounding drill that we used to do. It was a bear. That one drill kind of exemplified the team that we were. It exemplified the types of players that we had. And you had to go in and fight and claw to get stops. If you got to three, you were out, but if you got to two and someone scored on you, then you’d have to go back down to zero.
Diener: You’re doing these rebounding drills called one-on-one box out that’s absolute war with yourself and with your team.
Leitao: We were in practices and we’re just having, you know, (a mentality of) ‘we’re not going give up,’ particularly defensively. We’d have a drill or we’d have moments where we would have to stay on defense until we got a particular amount of stops or things of that nature.
Brown: When I came back (from an injury at the end of January), man, things were exciting. It was good to be back and practice.
Diener: Brown was our physical dominant force. At that point, we started to believe. He came back and played well. We were off to the races at that point.
Brown: You have to think when I was injured, the guys had to get comfortable with playing without me, so when I got back they had to get used to me. Individually, I wasn’t far off my game as I thought I would be. But I still had to click with the team. You still had to mesh … That wasn’t tough with me coming back and guys like Sammy were getting better.
Mejia: I found that comfort zone. I played for the first couple of months of the season like everything was new to me … By January or February, you could kind of already see the potential we had as a team. I knew my role and there wasn’t a lot to figure out anymore.
Cross: Sammy was somebody that guys looked at as the leader on the floor, as a point guard. That’s one of the toughest positions to play. The fact he was able to command that as a freshman says a lot about those guys.
Leitao: It was a good team because we had interchangeable parts, guys that could play multiple positions.
Greer: Our leading scorer was Delonte Holland, which he was versatile. He could make midrange shots. He was long and could defend.
Diener: A guy like Delonte Holland is not lacking for confidence. He was one of those guys who… you know how they say guys like Manny Ramirez was ‘Manny being Manny?’ Not to say Delonte was like Manny, but you could probably use that same type of saying.
Brown: Every night is some guy’s night. It’s different. It may be Drake’s night. It may be Delonte’s, maybe Sammy’s. We had guys like that who could get off at any time.
Greer: It’s all about repetition. In college basketball, you’re around your teammates so much you develop a camaraderie with them on the court and off the court, on how they like to do things or how you like to do this. With us and having a year under Coach Leitao, everybody knew what he expected.
Diener: (St. Louis) was a really, really big game for us. That was a game, at the time, it felt like little less than a do-or-die. St. Louis was a solid program, but if you’re going be a tournament team or win a conference tournament, that’s a team you have to beat — and sure not be down 20 to. So when we came back and won that one, it was extremely exciting. That was sort of a spring board for us also. It was a relief and when you’re able to do it on the road, it adds to your mojo a little bit.
Cross: I think about the Louisville game. They were a very good team, especially at Freedom Hall. [editor’s note: Louisville was ranked No. 21 at the time]
Mejia: During that time of the season, we were in such a groove. Coach Leitao has a great way of keeping his players confident.
Greer: Going into Louisville was a hostile environment. Freedom Hall was jammed pack and I don’t know how we were able to come out of there with a win. It was all about discipline and listening to the coaches’ game plan.
Diener: Quemont made a free throw or two at the end (of overtime). I remember them calling a timeout to ice him and in the huddle, there was really nothing to say. I think Quemont was a good free throw shooter, not great. I remember sitting in the huddle pretty confident. I always considered him a winner and we deserved to win the game, at Louisville. We had played a really, really good game.
Leitao: We started off the game very well. We took the game to Louisville that night and we got the lead. We played very well offensively. We made a lot of shots.
Leitao: Once they rallied their game, we had to hold them off because we had gained confidence by playing a really good team in a sold out Freedom Hall with a hall of fame coach (against Rick Pitino) and we were like, ‘wow we have a chance to win it.’ And I think that confidence carried us into overtime and allowed them to win.
Cross: For us to beat them on their home floor, that’s when you start to think, ‘Okay you know what? We’re pretty good. We’re a pretty good team who just beat a pretty good team.’
After beating Louisville 60-58 in overtime, DePaul closed out February with a 80-51 win over Southern Mississippi. With just two games left in the regular season, the Blue Demons had a chance to win their conference title, securing an NCAA tournament spot for the first time since 2000. But standing in their way was equally-tough Cincinnati and Southern Florida. Up first: Cincinnati on March 4, 2004 at Allstate Arena.
Greer: Everybody knew that the league was open at the time. There wasn’t no clear favorite.
Diener: (Cincinnati) was kind of dominating the league for a little bit there. They always had incredible talent. Coach (Bob) Huggins, I had a lot respect for him. He just brought talent together and tough nosed guys.
Greer: We put that game as a revenge game. They played us earlier in the year and beat us by 30. So when they were coming back to Chicago, we had our mindset on executing the game plan and listen to the coaches. And go out there and have fun. We knew our crowd was into it because it was sold out game against a top 25 team. We had to go out there and give it our all.
Cross: As it related to Cincinnati, they were the benchmark for toughness and hard-nosed basketball. We felt we could match and exceed their physicality and intensity.
Brown: Since I had been at DePaul, they were always rivals. And those games were tough. That’s the kind of atmosphere I wanted to be a part of. That’s my game.
Greer: There was a lot of trash talk. Cincinnati were the bullies. They used to intimidate a lot of teams. (I hated) pretty much all of them. It was all fun and hard work.
Mejia: I just remember it being a nail-biter.
Leitao: Bob Huggins is a tremendous coach and one of the things he does, in particular when we were at home, is he came after us. They were really aggressive. (In the first game) they got us back on our heels and we never recovered. (For this game) we became the aggressive more than anything.
Diener: That was the game we needed to win to prove ourselves to be in the tournament and have a shot at the conference title.
Leitao: It’s almost like when you stand up — don’t take this the wrong way —but when you stand up to the big bully and you knock them off their feet and you keep punching him. I think that mentality was carried out by our guys when we faced them here at home.
Mejia: That’s the game where I hit a super big 3-pointer towards the end of the game to seal it for us. And it was a great shot of me on the Tribune where I hit the three. It was a nail-biter for us. I put my arms up towards the fans and they rushed the court. It was a great shot on the Tribune and it’s always in the back of my mind when I think of DePaul. It’s just a great picture of me looking towards the student section at Allstate Arena.
Cross: For us to beat them at home, it meant we were playing at a level that we were capable of. It didn’t mean they were better or worse. It meant we were capable at any given time.
Mejia: This was my first time as a freshman and we were No. 1 in the conference. There were a lot of things emotionally that make it a great day for me as a basketball player.
Diener: Our last game was very good (attendance wise).
Mejia: The atmosphere was unbelievable. The fans were great that year. They had a connection to all of us as players. They’d chant our names and do those kind of things. I think they rushed the court four or five times that year.
Leitao: For me I get a little melancholy when (fans rushed the court after the Cincinnati game) because I go back to a process of realizing that I had come here to Chicago to DePaul to uplift a program and this was a small part of uplifting a program that you make you feel good about cheering for DePaul. That is the beauty of everything, not just your administration or your fan base, most importantly your students, that they can share in this. Because everybody wants a winner and if you can help bring that about then that’s a great feeling. So that was a culmination of all that.
Diener: I remember the next game at South Florida, we kind of grinded a win out there.
Greer: (The next and last game was a) drag out game because we knew USF wasn’t a contender, but we knew they were competing for the tournament. It was a tough close out game since it was their senior night. They played extremely hard and weren’t going to give us anything easy so we had to go in there and take it.
Diener: I remember staying down there that night (after the game). I remember talking to the guys about the fact we were going to get conference champion rings. That was an incredible feeling because we knew we were the one seed in the conference tournament. We knew we were going to the NCAAs.
With their win over South Florida, DePaul clinched the No. 1 seed in the following Conference USA tournament. They held the tiebreaker in a five-way tie for first place, finishing at 12-4 in the conference. After demolishing Texas Christian 89-65 in the Quarterfinal of the conference tournament, DePaul was to face a pesky University of Alabama Birmingham team … and then another familiar foe.
Brumfield: The crazy thing — and one of the assistant coaches told me this because I hadn’t looked at it — is where everybody was (in the standings). That was crazy, a five way tie. That was ridiculous.
Mejia: We knew as the No.1 seed, we were in a great position. We had to carry that confidence. All the things that gave us confidence into the conference tournament, we had to carry it out of it.
Cross: I was pretty upset that coach didn’t get Coach of the Year. (UAB coach) Mike Anderson got it and he deserved it as well. But I was pretty bothered by it.
Leitao: Every time we played a Mike Anderson coached team it was exhausting because they press for 40 minutes they made you make plays every single time. So it was physically exhausting, but also mentally because you could never ever rest, you could never walk the ball off the court and call an offensive set.
Mejia: They were one of the most annoying teams to play against. They had a bunch of small guys who never got tired and they would full court press you and never get tired.
Cross: The ‘40 minutes of hell.’ It was a tough day for us because there’s no way to match the level of intensity that you’re going to face against a team like that in practice.
Diener: They played a completely different style than us, or really anybody. They played really up and down, and pressed all the time.
Cross: When we were practicing against their fast breaker, we’d put seven guys on the floor to break the press. It was so hard to because they come at you with so much pressure. We had to try and simulate their pressure, and the only way to do that effectively was to put seven guys in the full court.
Greer: That was our third time playing them that season. So playing them there, we knew it was going to be a tough, grind it out game.
Mejia: We were just dead in the locker room. I remember going into overtime, thinking we didn’t want to play it. We just had to suck it up and thrust some energy to withstand their style of play for another five minutes.
Newhouse: That was a game Delonte Holland pretty much won single handedly. He just kind of took over. That was his game to shine. It stands out in my mind because a lot of his family came to Cincinnati to see him play. It was his shining moment for sure.
Greer: We won by one point. It was paying attention to details. We won that game off a defensive stop. LeVar Seals got a defensive steal or a reflection. We finished that game with a defensive stop.
Leitao: The pace of the game and the magnitude of the game was such that it was mentally and physically exhausting for everybody, including myself. Knowing you could persevere through that, win that game and move on to the finals was again that testament to that will and credit to their confidence.
Cross: It was unbelievable. I think about how hard we had to play and how much energy we spent. It was a beast, and a bear of a game.
Leitao: You know you have a short period of time (to prepare for the next game) and you have to go mostly on adrenaline … So what we tried to do to prepare is get a lot of rest, but understanding what we’re playing for that we could make a little history here by winning the regular season and the conference tournament championship. It was not going to be easy to play (against Cincinnati) for the third time in their city.
Greer: It was a hostile environment. By reaching the conference championship, it was like we were playing a road game.
Brown: I remember it clear as day. It was frustrating. They were embarrassing us.
Mejia: There was a lot in it for them. We beat them in the conference schedule to clinch first. They felt like they had some revenge for us.
Diener: That was a slugfest. It was a really emotional game.
Leitao: (Seals) got thrown out for throwing a punch to one of Cincinnati’s players, Tony Bobbitt. It wasn’t much of a punch, but at the same point in time, it got him removed from the game.
Brown: Bobbitt left the game. He got injured (off Seals’ hit) and came back so dramatic.
Newhouse: It occurred on the opposite side of the court from where I was at, so I didn’t really get a good look at it live. The first thing I did when I got back to my VCR — we didn’t have a DVR back then — I wanted to go back and replay that and look at that play. If you could see the look on Lavar’s face when he came back to the bench. He was astonished. He couldn’t believe the call from that – being ejected from the game.
Lenti Ponsetto: I think it was really clear when you watched the video that it was accidental, that there wasn’t anything intentional on LeVar’s part. I clearly at least was questionable of what the officials called.
Newhouse: I remember it so well I can even tell you the name of the ref who called the shot: Steve Welmer. He’s not officiating anymore. I think the day he retired there were a lot of DePaul fans who were happy.
Leitao: Maybe because the two games we played previously. I thought we played a little bit out of character that day, and it was an early game after, again, the day before having to play an overtime game. We didn’t play a great game but we hung in there and obviously did not win it at the end.
Mejia: There wasn’t going to be a team that was going to out-tough us. That was never going to happen. Like I said, if they were going to beat us, they had to beat us. We weren’t giving anything away to anybody. They deserved that day.
DePaul lost 55-50 to Cincinnati in the Conference USA championship, meaning they left their NCAA tournament chances to a selection committee. While they would make it in, they would be without Seals, a key defender, who was suspended automatically for getting ejected in the game prior. The Blue Demons would go on to draw Dayton.
Lenti Ponsetto: I asked for a review of the technical foul (LeVar) had been given. I spent a lot of time with the NCAA national coordinator of officials at that time, trying to better understand why we couldn’t reverse a wrong call that would take this young man out of his NCAA tournament game that we hadn’t been to in a couple of years. He was a senior and thought that would be a tough way if that was the end of his career.
Greer: We got the seed and we saw we were going to Buffalo, New York. We knew it was going to be a business trip, especially because we weren’t going to Florida or somewhere where it was nice and warm. We weren’t going to be able to hang out and have a good time.
Diener: At that point, we were all pretty relaxed. It’s good at that point because we had practiced a lot. Even late in the season, we were in the gym. That was the reason we were so good and tough. We had a tough mentality. There wasn’t a whole lot of laughing or joking in practice. It was tough. And that translated on the court.
Mejia: (Leitao) did a good job of doing stuff outside the box, taking your mind off stuff for a little bit, take a little mental break and have some fun and do those kinds of things.
Greer: Going into that game, knowing LeVar wouldn’t be able to play, he was one of our better defenders. We had one of our better defenders out. We took that approach we were going to play for him.
Brown: It was the big stage, man. We were happy to be there. We were all happy because everybody was going to be watching. We knew we were going to be looked at on TV.
Leitao: I remember being at a team dinner (before the Dayton game), and guys were getting silly and dancing, things like that. They just tried to enjoy the moment, things that the public doesn’t necessarily get to see. Guys were letting their head down and laughing and joking and making fun of one another. We kind of just let loose and kind of everybody was laughing and enjoying the moment.
Brown: (Leitao) told us to just enjoy the time and have fun. You’re here to win though, you’re not just here. We were there for a reason. He kind of specified those things and key points of just playing together, make sure we don’t bicker at each other on the court, keep everything professional.
Mejia: To free your mind so you can come and relax, we did that going into the game. We were relaxed. We were confident.
Leitao: (Dayton) was a white-knuckle game. Offense wasn’t the order of the day. I think both teams played tight. It was back and forth. They took a lead and we took a lead.
Greer: There was a time where we probably should have lost that game. I knew it was a teeter-totter back and forth type of game.
Brown: It didn’t start to become a game until the (second half). It was tough. I remember Dayton had two big guys who I thought I was much better than. But I think we had Quemont playing the four, but he’s kind of undersized. But he’s tough. I feel like we held our own.
Leitao: Their front court was difficult for the boys, but I think more than anything, we preserved. We hung in there tight and got us to overtime again.
Diener: There was a strange play towards the end of regulation where we had the ball with a second left in a tie game. We had to go full court and Quemont was gonna throw a baseball pass as far as he could. But he throws it and he hits the scoreboard above the court. He threw it way too high. Now it’s their ball with a second left on our basket, trying a lob play.
Diener: It was scary because you know, there could be a referee calling a foul. You don’t want to be the team that loses with one second left under their own basket. We tipped the ball or something, so we went to overtime.
Leitao: I think overtime was one of the things through the course of the year that taught us about that game. We had been in a number of close games. We had been in a number of overtime games so that anytime we got to overtime, my conversation was always the same. ‘Guys, we’ve been here. The team that’s going to win is going to be the aggressor so (with) everything else that has happened, this is our time. We know it. Let’s go out and take it.’
Cross: Going into double overtime, I think we were in a never say die mentality right there. We had fought so hard in order to make it to that point.
Brown: Drake Diener had a hell of a game. He saved us. One thing I learned about Drake is he got guts. He didn’t back down from any test. He had tough covers in the conference, but he came through, man. Drake saved us a lot of games.
Greer: He was an extremely hard worker. He did everything coach asked him to do. Before Sammy got there, we didn’t have a point guard so Drake was our point guard.
Mejia: I remember him getting into a groove. Me and Drake had a great relationship, when he would get in a groove I’d find him in time outs. I’d say, “move around, I’ll find you.” He was such a great shooter, when he gets into a rhythm it’s hard to stop him.
Brumfield: We all knew that Drake was the best shooter on the team, if not the conference itself. I knew, man, if I could get him a nice, good screen and if he had the look, he was going to knock it down.
Leitao: When you see him, or watch him or talk to him, he was humble and shy as a guy. He wanted no credit for about anything he did or his team did. But at the same point in time, he carried a pride about himself and aggression when it came to basketball and between the lines on the court, he wasn’t backing down from no opportunity and from no one in that opportunity. He proved it that day.
Diener: I played well. It was kind of an ugly game … I guess if the game was ugly, then we kind of made them play our style. Not that we wanted to play ugly, but we wanted to play physical and rebound. We were able to finish them.
Greer: Coach Leitao had us play the game for (Seals). He sacrificed himself and we were going to sacrifice for him. It took two overtimes to do it.
Greer: We celebrated in the moment and told LeVar he was going to be able to play in the NCAA tournament. He was excited he’d be able to play that next day.
DePaul had to quickly move on from their first NCAA tournament win since 1989. Waiting for the Blue Demons was two-seeded and eventual national champions UConn, coached by the legendary Jim Calhoun — who Leitao spent years coaching under as an assistant. They were beaten 72-55 as they finished their season 22-10.
Newhouse: I know the popular narrative everybody was told was the whole student versus mentor thing. That was really played up, especially because it was being televised on national TV.
Cross: Coach is as competitive as a person I’ve been around. I think he wants to beat his son in heavyweights let alone his former boss, no matter what. When it’s all said and done, if it came down to me against you, I’d want to win. It’s the same thing, he’d want to win and I’d want to beat him. The only emotional part was that he was facing a mentor and a father figure to him.
Leitao: It was not anything pleasing to me to go against somebody that I essentially spent a large part of my life with … I remember when the brackets came out and subsequent to that the conversation was about that potential match up, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
Greer: He just kept it straight and professional. He just let us know it was still a game between us and that we needed to win no matter what the buzz was.
Cross: He never ever mentioned him vs. Calhoun. It was always DePaul vs. UConn. It was just one really good versus one really, really good team.
Mejia: I thought it sucked that they put them together so early. I felt like if we had been in any other bracket, we would have won that next game. But Connecticut was super loaded that year. That was one of their better years as a program. They pretty much went on and swept everyone.
Diener: Everyone knew it was going to be a difficult matchup, but we were confident. Then we got out there. I think it was a pretty ugly beginning to the game. I don’t think either team scored much, but then they went on a run and we were behind 15 or 17.
Greer: We didn’t hang our heads because we knew we lost to a great team. We were sad that our season was over. But we didn’t hang our heads because they were a great basketball team.
Brown: We did great, man. We did awesome. I didn’t have to hang my head about nothing. I knew where I was as a player. I knew what I was capable of. At the end of the day life goes on, you have to get ready for the next big stage in your life. For me that was getting ready for the draft because at that time. I think I did everything I could. I left it all on the table. I wasn’t ashamed of anything.
Mejia: It turned out to be a pretty special team. One, because we had the players that we had before Coach Leitao arrived. Then it was an infusion of what he brought to the program. He was able to combine the different players that we had. He was able to find a balance among ourselves and the coaching staff, and we had some success.
Leitao: The thing in retrospect to this day is something that’s hard to describe, which is relationships … We coach for a particular reason, and that is to impact people’s lives. Knowing you have the chance to do that with somebody, it leaves a lifelong impression on you. That season and that group of guys and the fact that we could triumph as a result of our hard work, it became something that I would never forget.
Diener: I’m still very proud of what we accomplished. That’s my honest answer, but my other honest part is I wish DePaul was in a place where we wouldn’t be talking about a single team who won one conference championship or an NCAA tournament team. We stand out so much because what came after us.