- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NEWARK, Del. -- The mind was willing for a game that felt a little like it could have been played in March.
The body looked decidedly less convinced.
And then it happened.
For a few moments in the second half of Thursday's game between Delaware and No. 9 Maryland, a record crowd roaring its approval inside the Bob Carpenter Center, the mind seemed to take control and pull the body along with it. Elena Delle Donne was on the court from the outset, just her second appearance of the season as she deals with a recurrence of Lyme disease. But for those few moments in the second half, the best pure scorer in women's college basketball looked like she was back.
It passed almost as quickly as it arrived. Maryland lived up to its billing as the best rebounding team in the nation. The Terrapins bodied the challengers out of the way in a 69-53 win, their fourth in a row by double digits since losing at Connecticut. Tianna Hawkins looked like the All-American, piling up 16 points and 16 rebounds in the win. Delle Donne's final numbers, hitting just 7 of 23 attempts from the floor in 34 minutes, looked like someone who hadn't played in a month because of an illness that takes a physical toll far greater even than the defenders checking her in the post.
But those few minutes were enough to make it believable that this could still be the season Delaware envisioned.
"I was able to get into a little bit more of a rhythm," Delle Donne said of the second half. "And then, I think, once I got the rhythm, that's when I hit the wall, because obviously I haven't been practicing very long."
Before the season, when she was still optimistic about playing through the effects of Lyme disease, Delle Donne said it would be a struggle for her to maintain her playing weight. She looked lean Thursday, even a little haggard, as she moved slowly through warm-ups and then up and down the court at a measured pace. She never lets herself rev too close to the red line, even in the best of times, and yet this looked like someone willing her body to work.
She posted up Maryland's 6-foot-4 post, Alicia DeVaughn, on her team's first possession, felt the defender playing her to her right ever so slightly and faded the other way toward the baseline, the kind of post moves she long ago mastered. The shot came up well short. A minute later she had DeVaughn outside the defender's comfort zone on the wing, used a quick shot fake and stepped away for an open jumper. It faded off line and clanked off the rim. So it went in the first half. She played 15 minutes and took 12 shots but hit just three of them.
"Elena gave us the effort that she is capable of giving right now," Delaware coach Tina Martin said. "Hopefully, she will continue to get in shape. Hopefully, she will continue to be into the offense. She got into a little bit of rhythm in the second half. But when you're off a month -- I would say to anybody here, don't do anything for a month and then come out and try to play a basketball game. It's not easy."
It was Delle Donne's teammates, the ones forced to survive without her for much of the season against a challenging schedule, who kept the Blue Hens in the game for the first half, a seven-point halftime deficit about as far out of hand as the proceedings got in the first 20 minutes. Hawkins changed that, scoring the final four points of the first half and the first eight of the second half -- her first three field goals after halftime on offensive rebounds.
As Martin noted repeatedly after the game, Maryland's size is what differentiates it and other top-10 teams from Delaware. With or without Delle Donne, her team can't match that. What few, if any, of those teams can match a 6-foot-5 player with a post game, unlimited range and a guard's handle.
With Maryland leading 50-37 midway through the second half and threatening to pull away, Delle Donne took a short pass from Kayla Miller as the point guard beat a trap. In one motion, Delle Donne turned and launched a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 10 points. When she missed a jumper on the next possession, an audible collective sigh escaped the crowd. But minutes later, she snookered a defender on a shot fake, stepped to her left and drained a long jumper to cut Maryland's lead to eight points. Little more than a minute later, with the shot clock winding down, she caught a pass in the corner and drained another 3-pointer to cut the lead to three points at 52-49.
"She goes into those grooves; that separates her on the floor," Frese said. "That's what makes her so special. And when she started really heating up, we really couldn't find her in the zone, couldn't find her in man. But I thought we did a much better job eventually of trying to lock into her.
"But she continues to show what makes her an All-American and why she's a tremendous player."
The question that remains, that couldn't be answered Thursday night, is whether this was a step in the right direction or a step too far. Delle Donne said after the game she would have played even if the opponent hadn't been Maryland, the signature game on the schedule. Maybe that's true, and maybe she would have played 34 minutes in a game against a lesser opponent. But it's difficult to envision a scenario in which the competitor in Delle Donne would have sat silently, yielding to discretion as she watched from the sideline in front of a crowd of more than 5,000.
If she plays against Monmouth on Saturday, and again in a holiday tournament at Dartmouth later this month, then we will know more what this game meant -- and so will she.
"It's definitely been back and forth," Delle Donne said. "After the last game, the Providence game [Nov. 20], I expected to continue to play, and then my body didn't respond. It's been a back-and-forth thing, but hopefully now it'll be [all positive] and I'll be able to keep responding and keep playing."
Delle Donne received the loudest ovation from the crowd when she was introduced as a starter. But that noise was given to her. It seemed almost supportive, as if the fans could push her closer to feeling 100 percent.
When she squared up in the corner and hit the 3-pointer that cut the lead to three points with eight minutes to play, that sound was different. She drew that noise out of them, the sound spilling out spontaneously and deliriously.
"Just being on the court gives me a lot of hope," Delle Donne said. "It's been the one thing that's keeping me going, and trying to keep my mindset right, stay happy about everything. So being out there was incredible for me."
As college basketball fans, here's wishing this Christmas that it lasts.
20dBonnie D. Ford