The Blue Hens team is tearing through the CAA and has its sites set on making another run at the NCAA tournament in March.
With no major league professional sports programs in Delaware, a successful University of Delaware team can galvanize support from throughout the state, and that’s exactly what the Blue Hen women’s basketball team has done.
While the UD football program’s future is uncertain following the dismissal of head coach KC Keeler, expectations are high for the women’s team, in hometown superstar Elena Delle Donne’s final college season.
Delaware is behind the UD women’s basketball team in a big way. All you have to do is check the attendance numbers; 5,089 fans set a women’s basketball record for attendance at the Bob Carpenter Center during a December game against the University of Maryland. Average attendance is just shy of 3,300.
“Our fans are phenomenal” says Delle Donne. “As we started to win more games last season, you really started to see this place fill up and it’s been incredible.”
Hens guard Jaquetta May says the support is even more evident on the road. “I notice the most when we’re away. There are many people that travel to our away games. We flew out to New Hampshire, and there were 10 or 12 people there from home. It’s just great having that support behind you every game.”
With an undefeated record so far against opponents in the Colonial Athletic Association, the Hens are poised to make a follow up run to last year’s appearance in the NCAA tournament. In 2012, the Hens won their first round game as a no. 3 seed before getting upset in the second round by 11th seeded Kansas. This year, the first two rounds of the tournament would be in Newark, giving the Hens a chance to play in front of that hometown crowd.
“Yes, we want to be here in March. Yes, we want to be playing in front of our home crowd, that would be a dream come true for the players and for this coaching staff,” said Hens coach Tina Martin. “But there is a whole lot of work to do done before that can become a reality.”
The process of making that dream a reality nearly crumbled at the start of the season when Elena Delle Donne suffered a flare up of Lyme disease that limited her ability to practice and play. “I’ve been getting a lot better and I’ve been responding a lot better after games,” says Delle Donne. “Before I wasn’t responding at all, and I was basically bedridden, so I’m doing far better.”
The team struggled early without Delle Donne in the lineup, in part, because it was so unexpected. “I think at first not having her play kind of put a slippery slope, if you will, to our team because we weren’t kind of expecting it and we scrambled,” Martin says. “Now that it’s happened, certainly we’ll be more prepared, if it happens again, we don’t want it to happen again, but you know certainly it was a lesson learned by everybody and now we just want to keep everybody healthy.”
Even University of Maryland coach Brenda Frese acknowledged how Delle Donne’s presence lifts the rest of the team. Their energy in the first half was much different than what I had seen on film with her in the lineup,” Frese said after Maryland’s December win in Newark. “They’re a top 25 team no question with her on the floor.”
For the rest of the team, Delle Donne’s early absence called for lots of adjustments. “We had some things that threw us off a little with Elena getting sick and we didn’t win the games we thought we should’ve,” says May. “I feel like now we’re coming together more, we’re working more as a team and we’re learning how to work together to win.”
That learning process continues with a team trying to make one last push led by one of the best basketball players Delaware has ever seen. The story of Delle Donne’s decision to walk away from the top program in the country at the University of Connecticut has been well told. But her decision to return to the basketball court, after a brief detour to volleyball at UD, has certainly made a huge impact on the program.
“Elena making the decision four years ago certainly helped the program because she was the highest profile athlete in the state of Delaware to ever come out of our state,” says Martin. “And then to play at the University of Delaware certainly brought some notoriety, but I honestly believe its been the team that has been able to play together.”
Delle Donne’s star continues to rise, from throwing out the first pitch at Phillies Opening Day to winning a gold medal at the World University Games, but the highest profile athlete in Delaware has her sights set on the next level.
“Immediately after college basketball is over the draft is pretty much the first week after the final four games. So hopefully I will be at that draft, getting drafted to some team and then I’ll be flying out to that city and playing for a WNBA team.”
And she’s confident the health struggles that slowed her start to the season will soon be a thing of the past. “My doctor and I are both very hopeful and she has been having me on incredible treatments that restored my health. So I believe in her, and I believe that I will be healthy.”
But for now, Delle Donne and the team are focused on continuing their winning ways in the CAA conference and making a return trip to the NCAA tournament. May says they’re not looking at last year’s first round win as a stepping stone to more success. “This is a new year, new slate. We have to work again and pretend that we never even made it so we’ll get even further and that’s more motivation for us to go further in the tournament.
For Martin, it’s all about pushing the team to make sure the final year of Delle Donne’s tenure at Delaware ends well.
“I’d like to finish it in the right way. I hope the rest of the team wants to finish it in the right way. But again, that’s going to take effort and that’s going take sacrifice from some of these kids and hopefully they’re willing to do that.”