Could Delle Donne reinvigorate dormant Delaware athletics?
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Elena Delle Donne stood to the left of the perimeter, two defenders clutching at her sides. It was more of the same for the rangy 6-foot-5 junior, blanketed by a horde of opponents as her teammates roamed free. No. 10 Delaware trailed Hofstra 20-17 midway through the first half, and the shot clock dwindled to its final seconds. Then, in one effortless motion, Delle Donne broke toward the elbow, pulled up in traffic and lofted a floater over a swarm of flailing bodies. Swish.
It was part of another Herculean effort from Delle Donne, who tallied a season-high 42 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks to help Delaware clinch a 89-79 victory to improve to 23-1 (14-0 in conference). She surpassed the 2,000 career point mark, her total of 2,021 a stunning 346 more than any player in program history. To hear her tell it, however, it was a mere normality -- an expectation every time she takes the floor.
"I just don't wanna lose," she said. "I needed to score points tonight and get rebounds to help my team."
She may be downplaying her impact. Delle Donne leads the NCAA in scoring (28.8 points per game) and ranks among the top 20 in rebounds (10.4), blocked shots (2.8) and free throw percentage (90.8). She's topped the 30-point mark on 10 separate occasions, and has overwhelmed defenders with her versatile repertoire. During a blistering 1:54 stretch early in the second half Thursday, she racked up six points, two rebounds and two blocks, torching Hofstra from both the perimeter and the paint.
"Her ability to go inside and outside, that's a joy for our coaching staff," said 16th year Delaware coach Tina Martin. "She's so hard to trap because she can see over everything and it's so hard to stop her shot because she has a very quick release."
She's simply at a different level than the players around her -- the equivalent of Harrison Barnes suiting up for Northern Iowa; Jared Sullinger for Toledo. It's often mesmerizing, a fact that's not lost on opponents.
"She's tough to deny," said Hofstra coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey. "She's gonna get her points."
Almost single-handedly, Delle Donne has lifted Delaware from the depths of CAA obscurity to the forefront of women's basketball. It's quite a feat for a player who, less than three years ago, wasn't even on a basketball team.
That story has been told. After earning endless accolades during her ballyhooed career at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, Del., Delle Donne committed to play alongside Maya Moore at UConn -- and assume her place in the women's basketball pantheon. She was the reigning Naismith Prep Player of the Year and arguably the most heralded recruit since Candace Parker. College stardom, as far as scouts were concerned, was all but guaranteed.
Then she quit. She moved back home -- primarily to be closer to her older sister with cerebral palsy, Lizzie -- and enrolled at Delaware, where she joined the volleyball team. She rediscovered her passion for basketball before the 2009-10 campaign, and has dominated ever since: In 75 career appearances, she's averaging 26.9 points, nine rebounds and 2.5 blocks.
"She's the most skilled player I've ever coached," said Martin. "It's amazing the composure she has with people hanging all over her."
And to this point, that's been the story: Delle Donne's heroics spurring a middling mid-major (Delaware never held a Top 25 ranking until Nov. 28 of this year) into a nationally feared upstart. But with four games remaining in the regular season, the narrative will soon change. The question will become: How far can the one-time basketball prodigy carry the Blue Hens in March?
There's no easy answer. Delaware lacks a consistent complementary scorer, with no other player averaging in double-figures (junior guard Lauren Carra is the closest at 9.8 points per game). Delle Donne has been the leading scorer in every game this season, and the leading rebounder in all but four. If she has an uncharacteristic off night -- collecting 13 and seven instead of 30 and 11 -- it could spell an early exit for the Blue Hens.
There's also the lack of big-game experience, as Delaware has never won a postseason game. It lost its only meeting with a top 10 opponent this year, a clash with then-No. 5 Maryland on Dec. 29, despite 32 points, seven rebounds and three blocks from Delle Donne. It prompts concerns about team one-dimensionality; how it would fare against perennial powerhouses Baylor, Notre Dame and UConn.
"You look at the teams in the rankings behind us and you see Tennessee and Rutgers" Delle Donne said. "We're excited about it, but we definitely feel like we belong. It's not a fluke."
And therein, despite the doubts, is a palpable sense of hope. That, unmistakably, is the biggest take-away here.
Keep in mind: This is Delaware. Other than a brief stint when Joe Flacco quarterbacked in 2006-07, the athletic program has been without an identity. And now? It boasts a bona fide Player of the Year candidate and the legitimate prospect of a deep tournament run. That's immensely significant.
"Women's basketball is at an all-time excitement high right now," said Martin. "This is a special group of kids."
No matter how this season ends -- cutting down the nets in Denver or mourning a first-round upset in Bridgeport, Conn. -- Delle Donne is basking in the journey. It's been a wild and improbable ride -- and it's not over yet.
"It's been an amazing career so far," she said. "I'm just enjoying it every step of the way."