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NEWARK, Del. – The word “irony” is being tossed around a lot this week considering the impending close of the collegiate career of Delaware sensation Elena Delle Donne.
Soon after the sixth-seeded Blue Hens rallied from an early 10-point deficit in the second half Tuesday night to finish their 78-69 upset of third-seeded North Carolina (29-7), Delle Donne was asked if it was ironic that Delaware (32-3), in moving on to its first-ever Sweet 16 in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament this weekend, would be heading to the state of Connecticut.
It is there that the Blue Hens have landed in the same four-team group in Bridgeport as the University of Connecticut (31-4), which she spurned five years ago after originally emerging as the top high school prospect in the nation and declaring her intent to join the super-talented Huskies.
“Obviously, it will be nice playing in Connecticut,” Delle Donne said. “It is a beautiful state.”
Although some members of the infamous Connecticut horde media contingent have lusted for a potential Huskies-Blue Hens tango in the NCAA tournament ever since Delle Donne decided that home near family and friends has a greater value than being the prohibitive favorite to win national titles, it will still take a lot for fantasy to become reality.
The two schools couldn’t meet until Monday night and while UConn, the top seed of the Bridgeport Regional, is expected to get past No. 4 Maryland (27-7) Saturday after beating the injury-riddled Terrapins during the season in nonconference play, Delaware has a more daunting task putting aside second-seeded Kentucky (29-5), which would like to avenge last season’s regional final loss to Geno Auriemma’s troops.
The survivor in Bridgeport, of course, moves on to New Orleans and the Women’s Final Four in New Orleans for the national semifinals April 7, the following weekend, and April 9 for the 2013 championship.
But at this point for all intents and purposes Delle Donne has fulfilled the promise of a stellar career that first took root back in her formative years when – how’s this for irony – North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell, whose camp Delle Donne was attending in the seventh grade, told her father she would offer her a scholarship.
Over a decade later, Hatchell’s drive for a Sweet 16 was being short-circuited in Delaware’s sold-out and raucous Bob Carpenter Center, as her Tar Heels ran into deep foul trouble trying to defend Delle Donne, who put a bow on a similar night as her farewell five years previous in the same building in the state championship won by Ursuline Academy.
“It was emotional saying goodbye to the fans and to the Bob,” Delle Donne said. “We deserved to win our last game on this court. I don’t think I wanted anything more than this win and that is saying a lot.”
While Hatchell expressed unhappiness with the officiating, UNC did not exactly have a clear path either to land in New Orleans on the road now continued by Delaware.
One need not weep too much for Hatchell’s misfortune considering she has had much to celebrate including her recent ascension to the 900-victory club.
And next weekend she has a good chance to hear her name called when the next induction class of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., is announced at the men’s Final Four.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, the three-time Olympic gold medalist, former WNBA All-Star and Virginia All-American out of North Philadelphia, is also among the finalists for Naismith.
Hatchell will also be welcoming one of the more stellar classes of freshmen arriving anywhere when she greets Diamond DeShields and the rest of the newcomers in Chapel Hill for the start of the fall semester.
As for Delle Donne, though many thought she was throwing away her promise by playing with the Blue Hens in the mid-major Colonial Athletic Association, national championships aside, she is concluding her career with virtually all that might be possible.
In two straight comebacks here, she scored 33 points each night, including the opener against West Virginia, and became the ninth NCAA women’s Division I star to join the 3,000-point club. Delle Donne stands at 3,006 overall heading into Saturday’s high-noon showdown with the Wildcats in Webster Bank Arena, which is sold out for the doubleheader and likely to be filled again Monday night.
It wasn’t long ago that the most famous thing Delaware, the state, was noted for, was for jumping in front of the line back in the Colonial era to be the first to ratify the U.S. Constitution.
But then one day a quarterback from the nearby Philadelphia area named Joe Flacco came along to the Blue Hens athletic department and went on to fame and glory in the National Football League culminating several months ago with leading the Baltimore Ravens to the Super Bowl title.
Ironically, here we go again, when Delaware held the volleyball press conference in the late summer of 2008 to announce Delle Donne’s enrollment to play the sport, the event was two days after a certain home-grown United States senator by the name of Joe Biden, also a Delaware alumnus, had just been picked by Democratic presidential standard bearer Barack Obama to be his vice presidential running mate.
Let the record show that Delle Donne’s press conference drew as much attention as the local news involving Biden.
On Tuesday night, Biden was back in the arena to see the Blue Hens a second time after attending another sellout game last season. He told the team in the locker room after the game he would try to get to Bridgeport.
Delle Donne’s career, after returning to the sport following a year’s absence, got off to a bumpy start in 2009-10 – the Blue Hens lost to all the major CAA schools in the upper part of the conference in the closing minutes – but she still earned the first of three conference player of the year titles.
Year two saw her miss 12 games battling Lyme’s disease, but as she started to recover, she was strong enough to lead the Blue Hens to two upsets in the CAA tournament before losing to James Madison in the title game.
The first upset caused perennial conference power Old Dominion to make its earliest exit in conference history, being ousted in the quarterfinals.
Meanwhile Delle Donne continued to get herself back in shape and for those who questioned her desire, her commitment to the game, her answer was to make the U.S.A. World University Games squad and win a gold medal with the top collegians, including Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins.
Delaware, meanwhile, added two transfers to the eligibility list that summer from BCS schools – 5-8 guard Trumae Lucas from Florida and 5-7 guard Akima Richards from West Virginia, who became prime players to Delle Donne’s supporting cast, as did Danielle Parker.
By the time CAA media day rolled around in the fall of 2011, Delaware coach Tina Martin was no longer reticent about her team’s prospects – the time had come to wreak havoc and wreak they did – going unbeaten in CAA play – losing only to Maryland – getting nationally ranked and reaching the world where the big girls reside.
While Delle Donne, who led the nation in scoring, was rewriting conference and school records books, the Blue Hens were doing likewise in the team categories.
As last season came to a close she took her place alongside of Notre Dame’s Diggins and Baylor’s Brittney Griner as the top three prospects to send the WNBA into a power boost forward.
Want evidence? On Thursday afternoon the league and ESPN announced a $12 million annual rights fee payment and six-year extension through 2022 and in the middle if it all was the desire to focus on the trio’s careers.
Incidentally, when Delle Donne enrolled at Connecticut before bolting after 48 hours or less to head back home following her arrival on the campus in Storrs, her roommate was going to be AAU teammate Caroline Doty, another prized talent.
Doty’s career became star-crossed because she missed nearly two entire seasons because of recurring knee injuries which extended her to also being a senior in 2012-13.
Supposedly, when Doty awoke after Delle Donne had bolted, Doty wondered, “Where’d she go?”
This weekend, Doty will get the answer up close and personal and if the Blue Hens’ karma continues maybe even on the basketball court Monday night.
- Delle Donne shines as Blue Hens head for uncharted territory
- Elena Delle Donne: Hometown heroine taking her own path toward greatness