- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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UPPER MARLBORO, Md. -- After her team defeated Hofstra on Saturday afternoon to reach the Colonial Athletic Association championship game for the third consecutive season, Delaware coach Tina Martin said she was sick of hearing she was in charge of a one-woman show. There is more to her team, she insisted, than Elena Delle Donne.
The rest of the conference can commiserate. It is surely sick of hearing it is the wrong part of a one-team league.
Drexel gets the last chance to do something about it -- or to become the 42nd consecutive example to the contrary.
As the two teams did a season ago in the same arena, Delaware and Drexel will meet for the CAA championship and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. No team in the conference has come closer to beating Delaware the past two seasons than Drexel. The Dragons lost by a single point in a game last season, clipped by a Delle Donne winner with 2.3 seconds remaining. In January, they trailed by two points with fewer than four minutes to play. Two weeks ago, on the road, they were level with the Blue Hens with just more than a minute to play.
But close is the operative word. Drexel hasn't beaten Delaware in five tries the past two seasons. No CAA team has, a streak that reached 41 consecutive wins with the semifinal result against the Pride.
The CAA has been here before. Between the 1992-93 and 2001-02 seasons, Old Dominion brought national attention to the conference and met with marginal resistance in it. The Lady Monarchs were the class of the conference beyond those years, but they lost just twice to CAA opponents during those 10 seasons and went to the NCAA tournament every year.
Martin is right that her team is successful for more reasons than one player, but that player defines this league at the moment.
"It's certainly gotten the CAA back on the map," Drexel coach Denise Dillon said of Delle Donne. "All the years Old Dominion did what they did with some standout players, the CAA was known. We had a little bit of a drop off right there, and then Elena came into the league and it was back recognized as a good league.
"The difference is you've got to beat a Delaware for the respect of the conference to come back into play."
In a different universe, one without a player rated the best recruit in the country ending up in a conference more commonly built around recruiting the best player in a county, Hollie Mershon might enter Sunday's final trying to live up to the label of conference player of the year. Instead, she showed in Drexel's 50-34 victory against James Madison how easy it is to lose terrific players in Delle Donne's shadow.
Mershon slipped behind James Madison's defense off the tip Saturday and gave Drexel a quick lead. She then hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give her team a lead it never relinquished. But her value to the Dragons was most apparent when she was watching from the bench after picking up her second foul with almost 10 minutes left in the opening half.
Drexel led 20-8 when she exited for the remainder of the half. The score was 26-20 at the break, and her team had as many shot clock violations as made field goals in her absence.
"I felt, sure, they were going to go on a run," Dillon said. "If we could hold onto the lead a little going in halftime, we would be OK. I've done it my entire career -- if a player has two fouls, keeping them on the bench. And it certainly didn't hurt giving Hollie the necessary rest so she was ready to go the full second half."
On the first possession of the second half, Mershon fed Taylor Wootton for an easy inside basket, one of five assists on the day. And her 13 second-half points nearly matched James Madison's total of 14 points.
Drexel has a knack for turning out big-time scorers in a system that doesn't churn out gaudy offensive statistics. Gabriela Marginean led the school to the NCAA tournament in 2009 and ranked third in the nation in scoring that season. She gave way to Kamile Nacickaite, a first-team all-conference pick last season who averaged nearly 17 points per game. A freshman role player in Marginean's final season and the sidekick to Nacickaite a year ago, Mershon became the go-to player this season. She averaged 19.2 points per game in the regular season but also ranked second in the league in assists.
"It's all basically because Hollie wanted to be that player," Dillon said of someone who was, wouldn't you know it, an all-county selection at Archbishop Carroll in the Philadelphia area. "She came in from a strong program with a great understanding of the game that fit well with our system, but her mentality and work ethic is what made her the player that she has developed into year in and year out.
"She just battles. We say her greatest strength is her competitiveness and her drive. And it's certainly willing this team to continue playing and a chance at the championship."
Delaware was less than convincing in a quarterfinal win Friday against UNC-Wilmington, the last-place finisher in the regular season and a team ranked No. 299 in the RPI entering the tournament. The Blue Hens trailed 20-15 at halftime and needed most of the second half to regain control in an eventual 51-43 win.
There were no such concerns in a 75-54 semifinal victory against Hofstra. Delle Donne did her part, efficiently as ever, with 21 points and 13 rebounds in 28 minutes, but six other players scored at least six points and five others totaled at least four rebounds, balance that gave Martin ample ground to stand on.
The Blue Hens are who they are in no small part because of Trumae Lucas (13 points against Hofstra), Danielle Parker (10 points, six rebounds), Lauren Carra, Kayla Miller, Akeema Richards and others. They might well be competitive in this tournament without Delle Donne, as they held their own during the weeks she missed due to illness early this season. But Sunday is what it is because of the kind of player who isn't supposed to call a conference like this home, not anymore, not since the Old Dominions and Louisiana Techs of the world faded out of the picture.
Even if she didn't know much about the league in which she was about to become the center of gravity when she returned home to Delaware.
"I was clueless," Delle Donne said of the CAA. "Truthfully, I didn't even really know every team in the Big East, and that was where I was supposed to go. So I definitely didn't know the teams in the CAA. That's just the type of person I am. I knew I was in Delaware, and that's all that was going to matter. I was going to enjoy myself, enjoy my teammates, listen to my coaches and play whoever came on the court."
And at least the past two seasons, beat whoever came on the court.
CAA commissioner Tom Yeager has been in that position since the conference's inception and presided over all of those Old Dominion championships.
"It would be disappointing if you had the pack of runners and somebody broke out and nobody went after them," Yeager said. "But we have institutions. We have coaches that say 'I am going too. I may not have the pedigrees and everything else like that, but I'm not waving the flag. I'm not conceding here.'"
History suggests concession won't be part of Drexel's game plan Sunday. All that remains to be seen is how much that matters.