- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Elena Delle Donne talks about cutting down her first net since high school.
UPPER MARLBORO, Md. -- When the calendar turns to the postseason, be it conference tournaments or the glitzier tournament that follows, players aren't allowed to touch a basketball and commence pregame warm-ups until 60 minutes before tip. Even so, it's not unusual in such settings to see a solitary figure or a small party of advance scouts stroll out well ahead of time and wait for the clock to start, each preparing according to her own internal clock.
It's less common to see a team's entire bench full long before permission is granted to take the court, but that was the case for Delaware in the minutes before Sunday's Colonial Athletic Association championship game against Drexel. Every player in uniform sat knee-to-knee in various stages of anticipation, contemplation or conversation. The entire team together, sitting, waiting with a wall of blue and yellow shirts behind them from early-arriving fans who didn't let the small matter of daylight savings keep them from arriving long before the doors to the arena opened in the morning.
It was as though the Blue Hens and their traveling contingent wanted to make a visual point about what was to follow, that for all the awards and accolades coming the way of the player sitting on one end of the bench beforehand, at stake Sunday was a chance to prove they were the best team in the conference and perhaps one of the best in the country.
That what followed was a game that forced them to stick together for reasons of survival. The physical, grinding contest that got away from the officials and descended into a string of technical fouls was a shame for fans and a pain for players, but it didn't knock the Blue Hens from their mission. A 59-43 victory gave the program its first tournament title since moving to the CAA a decade ago and propelled the team into the NCAA tournament with a 30-1 record.
Elena Delle Donne finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds to earn the conference tournament's most outstanding player honors, but it was a win the team earned collectively.
"This is a team," Delaware coach Tina Martin said. "You don't go 21-0 [in the conference] and win the regular season and win the conference tournament unless you are a team. So I think this finally answers all those questions."
It just happens to be a team with one tremendously special player, and there's nothing wrong with embracing that answer.
It's a sore subject for the Blue Hens, the questions about just how much they have beyond their superstar. Connecticut never felt insecure about following Diana Taurasi or Maya Moore to multiple championships, and Tennessee's supporting cast became stars themselves winning back-to-back titles with Candace Parker. But for Delaware, a mid-major by any definition of the term, nerves get a little frayed when it comes to the spotlight on the star.
"I hope people realize this: Elena could not win games by herself," Martin said earlier this season in what is now a familiar mantra just about any time she's asked a question about Delle Donne. "This is a five-on-five game for everybody, and so many people say we're a one-person team. Elena is a special player; she's really talented. But there are four other kids, and in our case we have a rotation of basically nine kids. These kids all have to screen, pass, shoot, score. She's averaging whatever she's averaging, and we're averaging, as a team, in the mid-60s or whatever. So, hello, everybody, there's another 45 [points] or whatever that the other kids have to score, they have to take care of the ball, they have to rebound and they have to defend other people."
Sunday, that meant Lauren Carra scoring 14 points, including a 3-pointer to open the scoring and two more momentum-swinging shots from behind the arc in the second half. Against defenses that collapse on Delle Donne in the post, as Drexel did to great effect early in the final, Carra is Delaware's 3-point relief valve.
It meant Akeema Richards pulling down 11 boards, part of a 20-rebound advantage the Blue Hens had in the game, a familiar showing for a team ranked in the top 10 nationally in rebound margin. Delaware is better this season because Delle Donne is completely healthy and another year older, but it's also better because Richards and Trumae Lucas are eligible after sitting out last season following transfers from major-conference programs (West Virginia for Richards, Florida for Lucas).
It meant Kayla Miller playing 15 minutes without a turnover off the bench, many of those minutes coming as the desperate Dragons turned up the full-court pressure down the stretch.
And from Delle Donne to Carra, Richards, Lucas, Miller and starter Danielle Parker, it wasn't one player who limited Drexel to 29.9 percent shooting or put together the second-best field goal defense in the conference over the course of the regular season.
Martin said at one point this season that it's an insult to Delle Donne and the school to label the Blue Hens a one-person team. She was right, as Sunday showed. It would also be an insult to anyone's intelligence to suggest this isn't a team built around one person the likes of whom we have not often seen.
Delaware took a quick lead in the game's opening minutes and looked capable of stretching things out in much the manner it had throughout its stay at the Show Place Arena. But as Drexel continued to swarm around Delle Donne, denying her shots and even touches with two bodies in contact -- too much contact, to be honest -- for almost every second she spent inside the 3-point line, the top seed's rhythm vanished and the Dragons eventually evened the score. Rarely one to show much of any emotion between the lines, Delle Donne pumped a fist when she finally beat the clutching bodies inside with a post move to put her team back in front at 16-14, a lead Delaware never again surrendered. After a halftime pep talk from an assistant coach to deal with the contact, and some tweaks from Martin to get her more looks on the perimeter, Delle Donne hit 6 of 9 shots from the floor in the second half and all six of the free throws that finally came her way.
Just as telling was her emotion, the demonstrative fist pump when a Carra 3-pointer pushed the lead to double digits, and the crouching, stalking yell she let loose as she approached the bench in a timeout following a layup to push the lead to 14 points with 10 minutes to play.
Drexel did its best to demoralize Delle Donne. All it did was make her angry.
If you want to get Martin started on a good rant, ask her about the comparisons even some of her peers make between Delle Donne and men's players like Larry Bird. Perhaps out of sincere belief, or perhaps out of a desire to lessen the pressure on her star, Delaware's coach categorically, not to mention vociferously, rejects any such comparisons on the court. But there is at least one area in which she gives ground, putting Delle Donne in company that sets her apart from not just her teammates but just about anyone else in women's college basketball.
"That's what Elena has in common with other great players," Martin said earlier this season. "It's the winning that drives people. I don't think it's anything else. I don't think Elena gets caught up in all the other points, rebounds -- all Elena cares about is winning. That's what drives the great ones. That's what drove Magic, that's what drove Bird.
"If you put them in the middle of nowhere and put them on an asphalt court and said, 'OK, play,' and it's LeBron James against Michael Jordan in his prime, you'd see two guys -- they don't need the lights, they don't need the cameras, they don't need any of that; they're going to kill each other to see who wins. There doesn't have to be a soul there. I think Elena's the same way."
The players seem comfortable with the way things work, comfortable to fill the roles needed around Delle Donne on the court and embrace her as just another teammate off it. Once she wrapped up a television interview after the game, her teammates raced from the far side of the court to mob her, even briefly trying to lift the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne into the air before seeming to realize the physics involved worked against them.
"When she's around us, she's just your normal basketball player," Lucas said of her teammate. "She puts on her clothes the same way we do. We know how great she is, but she's not the type of person to let that get to her head. She's just a regular kid."
Whether they shake the perception that they're along for the ride might ultimately depend on what comes next, but what everyone associated with the Blue Hens can agree on is that the ride in question has been unforgettable.
"It's been amazing," senior Meghan McLean said on the eve of the tournament. "In all of my years playing basketball, this has been the most memorable year. It's a lot of fun. Obviously there's a lot of pressure and a lot of work, but we are constantly reminded -- we are reminding each other and we are reminded by our coaches after each big accomplishment just to take it in and really be in the moment. What Coach Martin doesn't want for us is to go through this and us never have soaked it in while it was happening."
They soaked it in together while waiting to take the court Sunday, and then they soaked it in together while cutting down the nets when the day was done.