Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell has his team one victory away from the school’s first Final Four. The Wildcats had to overcome an incredible effort by Elena Delle Donne to get there.
Jennifer O’Neill scored 19 points and A’dia Mathies added 16 to help Kentucky hold off the Blue Hens 69-62 on Saturday in the Bridgeport regional semifinals, bringing to an end the stellar career of Delle Donne.
It’s the second straight season that Kentucky (30-5) has advanced to the regional final and will play Connecticut. The top-seeded Huskies beat Maryland 76-50 on Saturday in the second game. UConn beat Kentucky by 15 points last year.
“When we were here last year and go back and watch those games, I think we’re more talented than the team last year,” Mitchell said. “If we play really hard and make shots, we can beat either team.”
The Wildcats would love to get down to New Orleans, the site the Final Four. It’s the same city where the Kentucky men’s team won the national championship last season.
“That’s something, isn’t it,” Mitchell said. “We’d love the opportunity.”
Kentucky withstood a Delaware rally led by Delle Donne, who had 33 points for Delaware (32-4). The Wildcats led by 14 in the second half before the Blue Hens cut it to 62-60.
But Kastine Evans calmly responded with a 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it 65-60.
“She’s unbelievable in those moments,” Mitchell said. “She’s made so many of those. I was not surprised and I was elated and very happy we needed a bucket.”
Jaquetta May had three chances at putbacks on the other end, but couldn’t convert and that ended any shot of the upset and finished off Delaware’s amazing season.
Delle Donne ended as the fifth all-time leading scorer in NCAA history with 3,039 points. She passed former stars Cheryl Miller, Chamique Holdsclaw and Maya Moore on Saturday. Delle Donne finished short of Jackie Stiles’ all-time scoring mark of 3,393 set at Southwest Missouri State from 1998-2001.
Delle Donne said she had no idea she had passed those women’s basketball greats.
“I wasn’t aware of anything of that nature,” Delle Donne said. “That’s incredible and it’s definitely humbling to be amongst those names.”
There’s little doubt that Delle Donne may have broken the scoring record had she not missed 22 games in her career. The 6-foot-5 star who is averaging 26.6 points in her career sat out six games this season with a reoccurrence of the symptoms of Lyme disease that forced her to miss a dozen games two years ago.
She did all she could to take Delaware to the regional final. Trailing by 14 early in the second half, the Blue Hens cut their deficit to 62-60 with 2:47 left on a jumper by Delle Donne that touched nearly every part of the rim before dropping in.
That was as close as they could get as Evans answered with her 3-pointer.
“Kastine hit the biggest shot of the game with that 3-pointer,” Delaware coach Tina Martin said. “That broke our back, giving them enough cushion at end of the game that they were able to sustain it and finish the game off.”
With the game out of reach, Martin took Delle Donne out with 10 seconds left to a warm, long ovation from the crowd.
“She’s so special to the University of Delaware and the state of Delaware,” Martin said. “I wanted them to have one last time to say thank you to her and the legacy she set for the program.”
Delle Donne had little help in the first half as her teammates struggled from the field. The senior forward did pretty much everything she could to help keep the Blue Hens in the game. She scored 13 straight points as Delaware trailed 17-15 midway through the first half. Then Kentucky took over scoring the next 10 points. Bria Goss got the run started with a jumper and capped it with a layup that made it 27-17.
The teams then traded baskets the rest of the half with O’Neill hitting a 3-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to make it 41-27.
It was the third straight NCAA game that the Blue Hens trailed at the half. They were able to rally against West Virginia and North Carolina at home and tried their best to pull off another, but the Blue Hens fell just short.
Lauren Carra had a big second half and finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds to provide a second offensive threat for the Blue Hens.
Delaware, which had never made it past the second round before this season, played its first two games at home in front of a raucous crowd that included Vice President Joe Biden.
While Biden didn’t make it up to the game Saturday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did. He graduated from Delaware where he met his wife Mary Pat. Christie was wearing a yellow Delaware fleece and took pictures and signed ticket stubs for fans.
The game was originally planned for the governor’s state. Trenton was to host the regional until the NCAA moved it in November, citing a new law that allowed gambling on college sports in New Jersey. The late switch didn’t seem to impact ticket sales, as Saturday’s session was sold out with nearly 8,600 fans in attendance.
The two teams had only played once before, with Delaware winning 86-70 in 2006.