Deanna Ortiz stood near center court in her royal blue uniform, biting her lower lip, her hands on her hips, as the last seconds of her season and DePaul career slipped off the clock.
This was Tuesday night at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. The second-round NCAA tourney game was no longer in doubt; a Tennessee player held the ball in a corner of the court, and the Vols were up 15. Ortiz was feeling a mix of pride about the season and sadness that it was ending. It's the last time I'll play in a DePaul uniform, she thought.
In postseason play in any sport, you could say that losing, not winning, is everything, or nearly. Like Ortiz, the vast majority of postseason players close out their seasons and careers in defeat. One team wins the NCAA tourney; 63 lose. DePaul made the tourney all four of Ortiz's years; twice the Blue Demons were knocked out in the first round, twice, now, in the second.
But no matter how much winning is dangled as sport's chief reward, Ortiz knows it isn't truly that. "I've made some friendships that are going to last forever," she said 20 minutes after the game, just outside the DePaul locker room.
She's five-foot-ten and broad shouldered. She grew up on the northwest side and started playing basketball in first grade. Michael Jordan was in his prime then and her parents were sports fans, so she saw a lot of Bulls games. Her father played in high school. Knee injuries curtailed his basketball career "but he loved it so he taught me how to play."
Ortiz played for her grammar school, Saint Robert Bellarmine in Portage Park. Doug Bruno, her future DePaul coach, came to one of her games when she was in seventh grade, and she caught his attention. She went on to star for Resurrection High School in Edison Park.
She was a guard for DePaul. She has a soft, accurate outside jumper, passes well, and is a hustling, smart defender. But she was coming off the bench until injuries felled one teammate after another this season, including her three senior classmates. Ortiz and the survivors then rose to the challenge, making the tourney with only seven regulars—the "magnificent seven," Bruno called them.
"We figured we can't give up just because we came on hard times," Ortiz said outside the locker room. "There was a lot of season left, and we decided as a team that we weren't going to call it bad luck and cash it in. We knew the girls that were healthy could still do it."
But not against Tennessee, a perennial power. The Blue Demons and the Vols had played each other 19 times before Tuesday, and Tennessee had won all 19.
DePaul managed to hang around most of the game, thanks largely to 20 points from star junior guard Anna Martin. With less than three minutes left, Ortiz nailed two jumpers, including a three-pointer that pulled the Blue Demons to within seven. But Martin fouled out a few seconds later, and DePaul was spent by Tennessee's ten-player rotation. The final was 63-48. Ortiz had nine points, one of her highest totals this season.
Ortiz was a cowinner this year of the Sportsmanship Award in DePaul's conference, the Big East. She's volunteered in soup kitchens and for numerous charity drives. "I believe that when you've been given gifts, you can show your appreciation by giving back to people who need help," she said. "It's something my parents taught me early and that was stressed in every school I've attended."
She's of Puerto Rican descent, and has accepted an invitation to try out for the Puerto Rican national team in April, which will attempt to qualify for the Olympics for the first time. Tuesday's loss would have been even tougher if not for that, she said: "It's not like I'm walking off a court for the very last time. But it's still the last time for DePaul, and I put so much energy and effort into these last four years."
Basketball isn't in her career plans—Ortiz majored in business and expects to go to law school. "But I'm sure I'll help out with my old high school coach, or something will come up," she said. I don't think I'll be able to not be around the game."