USA Women's National Team: Delle Donne Homeccoming Lights Up Delaware Arena in Win Over France
By ROB KNOX (@knoxrob1)
Photos by Melissa Willhouse
NEWARK, Del. – The Bob Carpenter Center roared and rocked like never before thanks to an enthusiastic sellout crowd that left members of the United States Women’s Basketball National Team in awe and Elena Delle Donne emotional.
From the time Delle Donne stepped onto the court for warmups at 7:03 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time to when she was hustled away while being surrounded by three security officers following an on-court postgame interview shortly before 9:30, the 4,711 fans shoehorned into the nooks and crannies enjoyed everything the Wilmington native and Ursuline Academy graduate did.
The energetic gathering departed into the hot, humid night hoarse and happy after exploding in ferocious sound throughout Delle Donne’s 10-point performance in 21 minutes of Team USA’s 84-62 victory over France at the University of Delaware Wednesday night.
In addition to addressing the capacity crowd before the game, Delle Donne was 4-of-8 shooting from the field.
“It was by far the most emotional game I’ve ever played at the Bob,” Delle Donne said. “To see faces that have been watching me here since eighth grade and have gone along with me in this entire journey with me, and now see me in a USA jersey, which has been my dream my entire life, and really the pinnacle of my career, it was so special to come out and share that with them as well.”
Elena Delle Donne makes a defennsive move.
Even though Team USA took another giant step coalescing into the juggernaut that’s favored to win its sixth consecutive gold medal in Rio next month, the night belonged to Delle Donne, who added sizzle to an already electrically charged atmosphere that resembled a giant family reunion.
At times the decibel level rose to one that rivaled a jumbo jet taking off.
Playing at her alma mater for the first time as a member of Team USA, Delle Donne drew the largest and loudest ovation when she was introduced before the start of the game. Fans savored every second of the contest refusing to leave the gym until well after the final buzzer.
“We have great fans, but they’re also intelligent fans, and when they get to watch the best players in the world come into the Bob Carpenter Center, they eat it up,” Delle Donne said. “They were getting so pumped on great offensive plays, even great defensive plays, so our fans are knowledgeable as well. So they’re thrilled to see the greatest players they’ve ever seen in this building.”
This was an event and a memorable night for the state of Delaware, who rolled out the red carpet for Team USA. The Delaware staff did a tremendous job.
Delle Donne’s teammates were impressed and appreciative of the large crowd that repeatedly chanted “USA! USA!” during various points of the contest that was closer than the score indicated.
“To hear the “USA!” chant from the whole crowd, that felt really good,” Diana Taurasi said. “I haven’t had that a lot in my 14 years with the national team. We’ve usually been playing overseas.”
USA and UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma surrounded in huddle from right to left: Sue Bird, Seimone Augustus, Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, and assistant coach Cheryl Reeve, the former La Salle star from Washington Township in South Jrsey who has guided the Minnesota Lynx to three WNBA titles in the past five seasons including 2015.
The importance of this exhibition game wasn’t lost on the veteran members of the Team USA. When asked about the atmosphere, players’ faces lit up.
“We knew what this meant for (Elena) and the state of Delaware,” Tamika Catchings said. “I don’t know how many times they’ve had an Olympic team come through and play here. Talking to her (parents), this is going to be the thing that they talk about for a long time.
"I think the way Elena played, she was a little overwhelmed at first. For all of us, we wanted to play well for her too. I think through it all, we pulled it together at the end. Through the (USA) chants, I think that took us over the edge.”
Fans were hyped long before the scheduled 7:30 p.m. tip. During Australia’s 80-67 win over Canada in the opening game, the stands were over 70 percent full.
Walking around the concourse, there were a kaleidoscope of No. 11 teal-and-gold Chicago Sky uniforms mixing with red-white-and-blue t-shirts.
One souvenir stand was sold out of Delle Donne’s USA t-shirt well before the start of Team USA’s game. The game program featured three congratulatory ads for Delle Donne.
The popping flashes from the myriad of camera phones reminded one of lightning bugs at a late summer picnic. Fans lined up seven deep around the edge of the court to take photos and capture the moments for their snapchat stories. Concession lines snaked around corners especially the one for the smoked chicken and pork.
“It was great,” Maya Moore said of the atmosphere. “It was so sweet and very encouraging. It’s a good way to continue to propel us forward to Rio to have a crowd like that come and be so enthusiastic and passionate to cheer us on as we were playing. When you have people in your corner and appreciating the work you’re doing out on the floor, it makes it that much more satisfying when you do play well.”
All 12 Team USA players hit the scoring column. In addition to Delle Donne, Tina Charles (17 points), Moore (13) and Diana Taurasi (10) all hit for double figures. Marine Johannes led France with 13 points.
Team USA led 32-31 at intermission before outscoring France, 31-15, in the third quarter to open a 17-point bulge entering the final 10 minutes. Delle Donne gave the crowd another memory to treasure when she converted a tough basket that turned into an old-fashioned 3-point play late in the game.
“I’m thrilled that we were able to come here,” Team USA and UConn women’s head coach Geno Auriemma said. “They’ve got some great basketball fans here and it was nice of us to be able to take part in it.”
The USA Basketball Women’s National Team is hosting Australia, Canada and France in a four-team, three-stop tournament this week.
From there, the U.S. team will travel to Houston for United States Olympic Team processing and a final practice on Aug. 2, prior to traveling to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Team USA’s first game in Olympic competition will be on Sunday, August 7 against Senegal at 11 a.m.
“Tonight was a great atmosphere,” said Sue Bird, who finished with a game-high eight assists. “The people of Delaware really showed up. Obviously to support us, but to see Elena do her thing and it was a lot of fun to play in this building.
"France is a good team and we’re at a point where we’re trying to get better every day and working out the kinks.”
The significance of this occasion wasn’t lost on Delle Donne, who did her best to savor every second of the experience. She tried sharing the moment with as many people as humanly possible as she held a meet-and-greet with select fans following the game where she graciously signed everything from orange balls, to colorful program covers to gray t-shirts to Chicago Sky jersey’s.
“This has been by far the most special night that I’ve ever played here, and there’s been a lot of special nights on this court, but this by far is the biggest for me,” Delle Donne said. “This being a dream come true for me and for a lot of Delaware fans as well, to see a Delawarean heading to the Olympics to compete for a gold medal.
"I’m not here to just represent myself, or the team, we’re really representing everybody, trying to make this dream come true for everyone.”