The injury issues began early for the DePaul women's basketball team.
Senior forward Taylor Pikes, the Big East sixth man of the year in 2011, had not recovered enough from a knee injury in the NCAA tournament last March and subsequent surgery to be ready for this season. Then freshman Chanise Jenkins hurt an ankle after starting the first two games.
Bruno knew all along Pikes' chances of coming back early in his 26th season as DePaul head coach were minimal. And he left Evanston on Nov. 27 after a 16-point win over Northwestern thinking his team would be able to overcome the loss of Jenkins, who has not played another minute.
But in the first week of January, the team's best player, senior Keisha Hampton, and another highly regarded freshman, Alexa Gallagher, were lost for the season. A week later, DePaul announced Pikes would not be able to play. A top reserve, Maureen Mulchrone, had gone out in late December.
"We've had other years losing very important players, but I don't know if we've ever had this many," Bruno said, his tone matter-of-fact rather than mournful.
For the last two months, DePaul has been a seven-woman team. Yet the Blue Demons earned a 10th straight NCAA tournament berth when the field was announced Monday.
DePaul (22-10), the seventh seed in the Des Moines Region, opens play against 10th-seeded BYU (26-6) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Allstate Arena, where action begins at 3:10 with second-seeded Tennessee (24-8) playing 15th-seeded Tennessee-Martin (23-8). The winners meet Monday night.
"I call them the Magnificent Seven, even if none of them — or my staff — have any idea what I am talking about,'' Bruno said. "I just tell them it's about being underdogs.
"I can't even express how impressed I am with all of them."
Hampton's loss to a knee injury would have been enough to take down many teams. The forward had started every game since her freshman year and projected as a possible lottery pick in this year's WNBA draft. Hampton began missing games in mid-December and played her last Dec. 31, finishing with averages of 16.6 points and 4.6 rebounds.
"When we found out she needed surgery, that's when the situation hit us over the head," Bruno said.
The next couple of weeks were rough. DePaul, 15-3 at the time, squandered a four-point lead in the final 100 seconds before losing in overtime at South Florida, returned home to an 88-44 thrashing by Connecticut, then lost a 16-point lead in the second half of a one-point defeat at Rutgers.
But the Rutgers game buoyed Bruno's spirits because post players Katherine Harry and Jasmine Penny finally began to show some effectiveness. That relieved the pressure on guards Anna Martin, the Big East's leading scorer, and Brittany Hrynko. DePaul went 7-4 the rest of the way.
"I still don't know if we have gotten good yet, but we have shown flashes in isolated games and isolated moments of what this team can be," Bruno said.