Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Guru College Report: Delaware and Drexel Grow The CAA

By Mel Greenberg

PHILADELPHIA – Drexel here and eighth-ranked Delaware down in Williamsburg, Va., were winners Wednesday night on the final date of the regular season calendar for competition in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Several months ago the CAA was projecting several teams into the NCAA tournament, a sign of how far the conference has evolved the last four years.

Now, barring a slip by Delaware in next week’s conference tournament at the Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md., it may only get the one holding the automatic bid, which is expected to be the Blue Hens, who are the first unbeaten regular season CAA champs in a decade at 18-0.

That’s because the eye test talked about on the men’s side may not be as preferable on the women’s side when it comes to consider the CAA as a multiple bid conference.

But on a date that Drexel celebrated senior night at the Dragons’ Daskalakis Athletic Center with as with late surge into a 73-63 victory and season sweep of Virginia Commonwealth while Delaware set school marks all over the place after beating William & Mary 79-53 it is apparent the CAA is in a far different place than it was several years ago.

This is the group that came in as freshmen and began a change in the CAA when they became part of a conference championship, Drexel coach Denise Dillon saluted Tyler Hale, Kamile Nacickaite, Marisa Crane and Ayana Lee.

That same year in 2009 Drexel also had Gabriela Marginean, the CAA scoring sensation whose marks have been surpassed once by former James Madison star Dawn Evans and likely to be topped again next season by Delaware sensation Elena Delle Donne.

The Dragons made history four seasons ago when they dislodged perennial winner Old Dominion in the semifinals of the CAA tournament, ending a 17-0 title run that began when the Lady Monarchs joined the conference.

Incidentally, ODU was the last to run a perfect trip in the CAA at 18-0 in 2001-02.

The next day Drexel beat host James Madison for the Dragons’ first NCAA appearance but the Dukes with Evans took the next two.

Now it appears that it’s Delaware’s time but even though many have felt since October that a healthy Delle Donne, the nation’s scoring leader, would lead the Blue Hens to new vistas, even veteran coach Tina Martin is a little awed at her team setting an overall school record at 27-1 and making a perfect run to the No. 1 seed.

The win also tied a school record at 17 straight – a number matching the 2001 America East champion edition and one in 2005 as a member of the CAA, which Drexel, Hofstra, Northeastern and Delaware joined in the summer of 2001 after leaving the America East.

“We made some history,” said Martin, who in her 16th season as a head coach at Delaware won her 150th CAA game Wednesday night. “Going 18-0 is extremely difficult to do in this league. I knew this team had the potential to be very good, but no, I wouldn’t have thought that, because of the competition we face day in and day out.

Delaware’s lone loss was to No. 6 Maryland 85-76 in College Park in the title game of the Terrapins’ holiday tournament in late December.

In some conferences teams beat each other because they are mediocre. In others, such as the CAA, it is because most nights it is total war from top to bottom.

“We’re ready for the NCAA because we’ve seen every kind of defense possible going through the conference,” Martin said recently coming down a stretch drive that included a gritty 40-39 win at Drexel several weeks ago when Delle Donne, on the worst night of her collegiate career scoring just 12 points, nailed the game-winner before regulation time expired.

One sign that the CAA has gotten better is that Delaware’s RPI used by the NCAA committee for tournament selection and seeding held consistently at 6 and 7 causing many to project the Blue Hens as a third seed when the Big Dance begins.

Of course Martin made sure she could get the right kind of schedule outside the CAA to provide an insurance policy for an at-large bid if the Blue Hens were to get upset.

But a win over then-No. 11 Penn State at home – the Lady Lions went on to win the No. 1 seed in the Big 10 – a triumph at St. Bonaventure – which astounded going unbeaten through the Atlantic 10 – a win at Princeton, the three-time Ivy champion which itself bulked up on opponents outside the conference, and a win at an improved Villanova team out of the Big East helped land a first-ever ranking in the Associated Press women’s poll and the Blue Hens have been climbing ever since.

When the night started for Wednesday’s games, it appeared Drexel would be a four seed next week, which the Dragons already clinched for the last of the four first-round byes.

But a shocking 80-62 massacre in Boston by Northeastern (8-21, 6-12) over Hofstra dropped the Pride (19-10, 11-7) to fourth while the Dragons (16-12, 12-6) got elevated.

West Chester native Shante Evans had 28 points and 14 rebounds for Hofstra that seemed NCAA bound in early January but will probably now land in the WNIT, a sign of how tough the league was not how weak Hofstra became.

Drexel surged down the stretch and while Nacickaite’s team-high 19 points was no surprise, Fiona Flanagan’s career-high 16 points, all gained in a matter of minutes in the second half, certainly was an extra contribution.

“The basket looked big to me in the second half so it was easy to put the ball into it,” Flanagan said after shooting 4-of-7 three pointers.

Hollie Mershon scored 13 points and Hale scored 11.

Courtney Hurt, who might have been the dominant star in the CAA this season had not Delle Donne be in the conference, had 20 points for VCU and is likely to go in the first round of the WNBA draft in April.

The visiting Rams (16-13, 9-9) also got 17 points from Andrea Barbour and 11 from Carleeda Green.

VCU has the sixth seed and if the Rams get past the first round they will meet Drexel in the quarterfinals. James Madison had already locked up the two seed before Wednesday night.

Drexel was picked to finish fifth in the preseason poll by the conference coaches.

“I was saying at halftime to the team we weren’t playing the defense we needed to,” Dillon said. “I don’t think we were aggressive or on the same page.

“They came out the second half with a sense of urgency. I don’t think they were playing for something besides the seeds and then they turned it up a notch.”

Dillon talked about the improved CAA and the span of growth from the Dragons’ championship to Delaware’s dominance in a time Old Dominion has gone into decline but has been playing improved ball down the stretch.

“I think the last few years the CAA has gotten recognition – with us changing things and Old Dominion not being the name any more – Gabby really putting a mark on our program and Dawn Evans doing what she did at JMU and now Elena Delle Donne,” she said.

“It takes a great player – especially in the mid-majors. It takes a great player for the media to embrace those teams. You have a team like Marist (in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) – they have five players that play well together.

“But when you have one player you attract media attention and Elena has done that for this conference and, hey, we understand you have to jump on that when it happens.”

Dillon also noted the play of VCU’s Hurt.

“I said to our players at halftime what was our goal – to limit her touches – she had taken 10 shots – the kid scores 23 and gets 10 points a game. She’s no one to push aside, she’s fantastic. But now they have an inexperienced point guard, she’s doing a good job, but it’s not like having experience last year to make things easier for VCU.”

Of course, fantastic has been in the vocabulary of descriptions of Delle Donne’s game this season.

Against the Tribe she scored 26 points and grabbed 11 rebounds leading three other Delaware players who also scored in double figures. Laura Carra and Danielle Parker each scored 14 points and Akeema Richards scored 11.

Delle Donne, a 6-5 junior forward, has scored 791 points to date this season, topping her freshman total of 774 points.

Following unbeaten Baylor, ranked No. 1, Delaware is one of three other squads with just one loss.

Delle Donne was ecstatic to finish the regular season on top after leading the Blue Hens to a pair of upsets in last season’s CAA tourney to lead the seventh-seeded squad before losing to JMU in the championship.

“It’s huge and it’s something we definitely wanted to accomplish,” said Delle Donne, who leads the nation in scoring with 28.3 points per game. “Coach says it a lot, ‘Anyone can start something, but champions finish it.’”

CAA Pairings Set

Here’s the schedule for next week’s tournament.

Thursday, March 8

First round

No. 8 Old Dominion vs. No. 9 Towson, 12 p.m.; No. 5 UNCW vs. No. 12 Georgia State, 2:30 p.m.; No. 7 George Mason vs. No. 10 Northeastern, 5 p.m.; No. 6 VCU vs. No. 11 William & Mary, 7:30 p.m.

Friday, March 9

Quarterfinals

No. 1 Delaware vs. ODU-Towson winner, 12 p.m.; No. 4 Hofstra vs. UNCW-Georgia State winner, 2:30 p.m; No. 2 James Madison vs. George Mason-Northeastern winner, 5 p.m.; No. 3 Drexel vs. VCU-William & Mary winner, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, March 10

Semifinals

Delaware winner vs. Hofstra winner, 12 p.m.; James Madison winner vs. Drexel winner, 2:30 p.m.

Sunday, March 11

Championship

Semifinals winners, 12:30 p.m.

USBWA Watch Lists

The U.S. Basketball Writers Association on Thursday afternoon will release a five-person watch list for freshman of the year and a 10-person watch list for coach of the year.

All freshmen and coaches are eligible for the two awards, however, when balloting gets under way.

Duke’s Elizabeth Williams is likely to be on the freshman list while Delaware’s Tina Martin, St. Bonaventure’s Jim Crowley and Princeton’s Courtney Banghart are expected to be on the coach list since they have already been speculated elsewhere for similar honors.

The Guru will be tweeting when the list is out which will be on the USBWA.com site.

The Madness Begins

With the arrival of March Madness, conference tournaments are under way.

In the ACC in Greensboro, N.C., Clemson is meeting North Carolina; North Carolina State is playing Florida State; Virginia Tech is playing Wake Forest; and Boston College is playing Virginia.

In the Big Ten in Indianapolis, Ind., Northwestern meets Nebraska; Illinois meets Michigan; Wisconsin meets Minnesota; and Indiana meets Michigan State.

In the Southeastern Conference, Auburn, whose coach Nell Fortner is departing for other opportunities, meets Florida; Mississippi State meets Vanderbilt; Mississippi meets Arkansas; and 25th-ranked South Carolina meets Alabama.

In the Metro Atlantic, Rider meets Iona; St. Peter’s meets Canisius; while in the America East, Maine meets Stony Brook.

The Atlantic Sun got under way Wednesday and Forida Gulf Coast beat ETSU, 79-63; and Stetson, the defending champion, beat South Carolina Upstate, 72-59. On Thursday, North Florida meets Kennesaw State and Belmont meets Jacksonville.

The Ohio Valley also got under way with Austin Peay beating Morehead State 84-83 in overtime; and Eastern Kentucky topping Tennessee State 70-55. On Thursday, Murray State meets Austin Peay, while Tennessee Tech meets Eastern Kentucky.

The Patriot League gets under way on campus sites Thursday night. Lafayette is at American; Bucknell is at Lehigh; Colgate is at Navy; and Holy Cross is at Army.

The West Coast got under way and Loyola Marymount beat San Francisco, 66-60. On Thursday, Pepperdine plays Loyola Marymount and Santa Clara plays Portland.

That’s it until later unless the news warrants earlier.

-- Mel

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