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.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Guru's Musings: CAA Title Transforms Delaware Dreams Into NCAA Reality

(Guru's note: The Guru wrote a print story for the Inquirer on the game which is on philly.com)

By Mel Greenberg

UPPER MARLBORO, Md. – Three years ago in the spring of 2009 when Elena Delle Donne, the national high school sensation out of Wilmington’s Ursuline Academy, announced her return to basketball at the University of Delaware where she had enrolled the previous August to play volleyball, there were quick assumptions from the Blue Hens fan base.

“We can probably get a ranking,” said one at a time Delaware had gone through two terrible seasons off a recruiting hiccup following years of winning 20 or more games.

“We should own the CAA,” was another declaration about the Colonial Athletic Association, which for years lived under the rule of Old Dominion and James Madison.

To all the instant expectations, longtime coach Tina Martin, now in her 16th season after previously being an aide at Seton Hall, uttered one simple plea amid the excitement “Patience. None of these things will happen over night.”

But on the eve of another NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Monday Night Selection Show they have indeed all happened and more in what has become a landmark season for the Blue Hens.

The days of suspense in certain seasons as to whether Delaware could receive an at-large bid have now transformed to see how high a seed will the Blue Hens receive when the 64-team field and draw are revealed Monday night on ESPN-TV.

This comes in the wake of Sunday’s 59-43 win over neighboring rival Drexel by Delaware to win a first-ever CAA title here at the Show Place Arena, also known for equestrian events.

After being stifled in the first half and limited to eight points in a game similar to Delaware’s narrow 40-39 escape last month at Drexel, Delle Donne went on finish with 27 points, within decimal points of her NCAA-leading scoring average; grab 10 rebounds; block three shots and get a steal on the way to being named the most valuable player of the tournament.

And so with the second phase of Delaware’s “mission” accomplished, this is the Blue Hens’ resume to date.

They go into the NCAA tournament with a school all-time overall record of 30-1, the one being a competitive loss at No. 5 Maryland in the Terrapins’ tournament in late December. The wins are highlighted by a home upset of then- No. 11 Penn State, which went on to win the regular season Big Ten title. They also topped Villanova of the Big East, won at Ivy champion Princeton, and at Atlantic 10 regular-season champion St. Bonaventure.

Delaware also is on a best-ever 20-game win streak. In that stretch, the Blue Hens became the first team in a decade to go 18-0 in the CAA as well as finish out here in the tournament going 3-0 from the quarterfinals with two easy outings until putting away the Dragons (18-13).

As for a national ranking, Delaware got that also for the first time ever in late November and then has kept moving all the way up to No. 7 in the Associated Press women’s poll prior to Monday’s final weekly ranking of the season.

In accomplishing this, the Blue Hens at the end of the December, as the nonconference schedule came to a close, had a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) ranking of No. 1 and strength of schedule ranking also at the top of more than 300 Division I schools.

And though Delaware is likely to be the only CAA school in the NCAA field, give the conference credit for not destroying the Blue Hens’ luster. For those who expected their RPI to plunge once they hit the conference slate, they dropped to no more than eight or ninth, depending on which RPI projection is being used.

Now the plan is to win a first-ever NCAA tournament game, which the Blue Hens will be favored to do because unlike two previous appearances when they were a 13th seed and 12th seed they should be placed high enough in the bracket to not only win the first but also advance all the way at least to the Sweet 16.

“We’re on a mission but this feels really, really good and I’m proud of my kids,” Martin said of winning the CAA.

“This is a team. You don’t go 21-0 and win the regular season and win the conference tournament unless you are a team,” Martin said. “It finally answers all those questions.”

Drexel coach Denise Dillon praised Delle Donne for making Delaware’s landmark season a reality.

“Elena’s tremendous and you can’t take away anything she’s capable of doing,” Dillon said. “She’s sharing the ball. She makes everyone around her great. It’s going to be tough for any team they face.”

In Delle Donne’s first season, she missed several games due to nagging injuries and the Blue Hens also lacked a roster that did not offer too many other options.

The schedule was soft, built to recover from the 7-24 season of 2008 and 15-15 season of 2009 before Martin had any idea that one of the most celebrated high school women’s hoops stars of all time would drop into the laps of the Blue Hens.

So there was no safety valve to land an at-large bid from the NCAA, though Delaware jumped to better times at 21-12, fourth in the CAA while Delle Donne in a rarity in conference history was named both the outstanding freshman and player of the year.

Last season, there were indications that things were going to get better. Penn State, making its own comeback to respectability, was on the schedule with the knowledge the Lady Lions would return the game to the Bob Carpenter Center in Newark this season.

Two significant additions were hidden away at practice sitting out a year after their transfers in Akeema Richards from West Virginia of the Big East Conference and Trumae Lucas from Florida in the Southeastern Conference.

But progress was slowed by a series of injuries, first to sophomore Kayla Miller, a transfer from George Washington who missed the entire season due to back problems.

Then early on, Delle Donne, who had gotten off to an explosive start, pulled herself out after six minutes of play in the La Salle game in Philadelphia.

Martin said she had been suffering from fatigue. Off and on, Delle Donne was to miss a total of 12 games, depriving her of a national scoring title, as doctors continued to run a series of tests until it was determined she was suffering from Lyme’s Disease.

Once the mystery was solved, Delle Donne received enough treatment to will herself back into active duty and though Delaware, which was to finish 20-4, was a seventh seed in the CAA tournament, the Blue Hens launched a series of upsets ousting Old Dominion in the quarterfinals and UNC Wilmington in the semifinals.

But ultimately, four games in four days became a grind an in the championship and Delaware fell short as James Madison walked off with a second-straight CAA title.

That loss, however, sprung the resolve to finish the job this time around.

“After last year we left that court with an awful taste in our mouths,” Delle Donne said. “We worked extremely hard in the offseason. We really came together. This is just everything we’ve been working for and I think we’re deserving of this and it’s so exciting to share it with such a close-knit team, too.

“Obviously, Coach Martin is our leader and to get this with her – be the first team to do it with her means a lot.”

In the offseason, Delle Donne, feeling stronger as she recovered from her illness, decided to go after a spot on the USA Basketball World University Games squad that would be picked from the best of collegiate talent in the country.

She made the squad and became the top scorer and rebounder as the USA team won a gold medal. At that moment, Delle Donne had gone full circle realizing the promise she shown back in her formative years winning state high school titles.

“This summer gave me a lot of confidence,” she said. “Not only in my game but in my leadership skills as a player. All of us are extremely confidence heading into the NCAA tournament. I really feel we can compete at an elite level and compete with all the teams in the country.

“We’re ready to go. We’re ready to prepare. Obviously, we’re going to take this in and enjoy it. But we’re ready.”

Martin said the only time she felt any pressure was when Delaware played at Drexel last month for the second meeting with the Dragons and escaped with the 40-39 win when Delle Donne, struggling in her worst game as a collegian scoring just 12 points, hit the game-winner in the final seconds.

“I felt there was no pressure once the regular season was over,” Martin said. “It became a matter of being the hunter. I told the team, `We have to hunt our championship.’ We hadn’t won a CAA championship and it was our time.

“And the players took that and just ran with it. So I think going into the NCAA tournament, they’ve gone through a lot, that’s our advantage.

“I think this team is battle tested. They’ve taken a lot this year. All kind of defenses and they’ve stepped up and got it done and we’re champions.

“And that’s what I told each player as I was hugging them. `You’re a champion and no one can take that away from you. And not only that, we’re undefeated champions.’”

Though Martin guided the Blue Hens to an automatic bid when they won the America East in 2001 – Delaware’s final year in the conference – this one has special meaning for her.

“So many things have happened. Obviously, we’ve pulled all different personalities together from when Elena first came to Delaware, to Akeema and Trumae, Lauren (Carra) a true freshman, Danielle Parker’s ACL injury.

“We’ve been through so much. My other championship team, they didn’t have so many struggles. This team has had to really persevere and step up to the plate and I’m just happy for the kids.

“This one feels really special because of the circumstances we came through. Everybody talks about last year but last year was such a broken year from the standpoint of we didn’t have Akeema, We didn’t have Trumae, we didn’t have Kayla all year, Elena missed half the year and it was a roller coaster.

“And we pulled it together at the end and almost pulled it off. Considering that we only played 14 or 15 games together. So I’m just really proud of this team for showing they really wanted it, through the summer and into the fall and working so hard.

“These kids, all of them, 1-15. A lot of them made personal sacrifices. Kids like Jocelyn Bailey who didn’t start and came off the bench and accepted her role. Vanessa Kabongo accepted her role. My seniors – Sarah Acker coming off the hip injury couldn’t do anything all summer accepted her role.

No other team I’ve ever coached has gotten it. And by gotten it, I mean the chemistry and the team bonding like this team does. They truly, truly care about one another. They just worked really, really hard so this feels really special.”

-- Mel

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