For the first time since she graduated in 2008, DePaul junior Keisha Hampton will be within a stone’s throw of Engineering & Science High School this weekend when she and her Blue Demon teammates face Duke at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia.

“Literally, you can throw a baseball from her gym to the Liacouras Center where we’re going to be playing,” DePaul head coach Doug Bruno said. “I’m just thrilled that given the circumstances of the NCAA Tournament, we were placed in Philadelphia. One of two Philly players was going home, either Maggie Lucas from Germantown Academy who plays for Penn State, or Keisha Hampton from Engineering & Science. I’m just excited that Keish made it happen.”

Hampton played a critical role in DePaul’s second-round victory against the Nittany Lions, posting 26 points as the Blue Demons rallied from 14 points down at PSU’s Bryce Jordan Center. Hampton scored 19 of her 26 points after halftime, including two free throws with 4.6 seconds to play to seal the 75-73 victory.

“Keisha really had a great second half against Penn State and literally put us on her back from an offensive point of view,” Bruno said. “We were really struggling on the road to beat a very good Penn State team on their home court and she just really stepped up big in the second half. It was huge. We don’t get out of Happy Valley without what she did.”

We worked hard every day focusing on not going out in the first round again. We wanted things to change. We worked all season for it.
-- Keisha Hampton, DePaul junior guard

“Playing at Penn State, the environment was crazy,” Hampton said. “They had a lot of fans, it was a great gym and the atmosphere was just phenomenal. It came down to one possession and we pulled the win out.

“They are a great team and it was a good experience for us, beating a team on their home court in the NCAA Tournament. I don’t think a lot of teams get a chance to do that and we did it.”

The seniors on this Blue Demon team have been through a roller coaster ride during their long careers.

“Sam Quigley, Felicia Chester, Deirdre Naughton, Chine Threatt and Jen Juergens are all fifth-year seniors with Deirdre Naughton being a sixth-year senior,”  Bruno said. “That sounds like it’s great and it is great, but the price we’ve paid to have them as fifth-year seniors is playing each of the previous four years without one or more of them. There has been a serious four-year price to get to this point where you have four of them together. That senior leadership is huge and that experience is huge.”

That experience has emerged in different ways, Bruno said, both on and off the court.

“They’re such a great group of senior leaders. It’s a very connected group,” he said. “They’re a group of women that love to be together. They get along. There’s great diversity among this group, they’re not clones of each other. They’re also very smart. They finished eighth in the nation academically and were one of the only teams in the country ranked academically top 10 [by the WBCA] and on the floor in the top 10 as well.”

“Now Keisha Hampton is emerging as a go-to player with her 31 points against Notre Dame, 27 against Stanford, 26 the other night, so that’s starting to develop into a very important key for our team. From an experience point of view, she has started every game since her freshman year, and she has never missed a game. When Deirdre Naughton, who was on the Wade and Wooden watch lists, was injured a year ago, our two sophomores, Katherine Harry and Anna Martin both began to start. So while we’re old and experienced, our younger kids have a lot of experience as well.”

When asked where the rise to a top 10 national ranking and No. 3 seed in the 2011 NCAA Tournament began, Bruno turns the clock back 15 months and points to a 96-60 loss at Stanford on Dec. 13, 2009. That humbling loss kicked off an 11-day road trip for DePaul, as the team stayed on the west coast for eight days.

A week to the day after the 36-point setback, Bruno’s Blue Demons upset then-No. 10/6 Florida State in Las Vegas, beginning a streaky Big East season that culminated in five consecutive wins down the stretch to secure a place in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. That run ended on opening night with an overtime loss to Vanderbilt in the NCAA first round. It was the fourth consecutive opening-round loss for DePaul.

DePaul coach Doug Bruno

A runner-up finish in the 2010 Preseason WNIT was the springboard for a successful 2010-11 season, highlighted by a 91-71 win against then-No. 2 Stanford at McGrath Arena on Dec. 16, almost exactly a year after that 36-point loss.

“It was December, not March,” Bruno said. “Kayla Pedersen didn’t play [for Stanford], but Deirdre Naughton didn’t play for us, either. I think that was the moment where these guys really figured out that we are pretty good and we have a chance to be pretty special.”

The Blue Demons went on to a 13-3 Big East record. Along the way, they finished second behind Connecticut in the league standings while posting the best Big East finish in program history.

The league advanced nine teams to the NCAA Tournament, with all nine reaching the second round. Five of those squads are still alive in the Sweet Sixteen, with three of the four losses on the home courts of No. 1 seeds -- St. John’s lost at Stanford, West Virginia lost at Baylor and Marquette lost at Tennessee.

Three of the five remaining Big East teams resume action in Philadelphia this weekend with UConn playing Georgetown and DePaul playing ACC foe Duke. Louisville is the No. 7 seed in the Spokane regional and Notre Dame is the No. 2 seed in Dayton.

“It’s tournament basketball,” said Bruno of his team’s tall task against Duke. “Tournament basketball really comes down to defending, rebounding, gritting out each 40-minute or two-hour series at a time. You can look at it as we have a four-game season, but you don’t have a four-game season. It’s a one-game season.”

That one-game season will be played in front of Hampton’s hometown crowd. While she is visibly excited to return to Philadelphia and her high school neighborhood, Hampton’s focus is on advancing.

“Ever since our NCAA loss last year to Vanderbilt, we’ve focused in spring workouts, summer workouts and preseason,” Hampton said. “We worked hard every day focusing on not going out in the first round again. We wanted things to change. We worked all season for it.

“We won some big games in the conference and had a huge Stanford win that helped our confidence a lot. We have been confident all season knowing that we can beat a team that is still standing at the end and we’re just feeding off of our confidence right now.”