- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- The Delaware Blue Hens don't appear to be in danger of freezing under the spotlight.
In the minutes before their practice Friday, the players were busy fashioning a headband made out of pre-wrap for assistant coach Jeanine Radice. They were laughing, taking pictures and soaking it all in.
After all, this is Delaware's first trip to the Sweet 16, and coach Tina Martin has encouraged her players to have fun. Martin even began her news conference by saying, "After I wake up from the dream I'm in ..." As in, she can't believe her little mid-major program -- Martin is in her 17th season at Delaware -- is making such big waves. "I'm not worried about them being uptight," Martin said of her players. "If anything, they're enjoying it and taking in everything they can."
So, yeah, Delaware is definitely happy to be in Bridgeport. Just don't confuse happy with content. "We don't let the excitement we have off the court interfere with how we play when we step onto the court," senior guard Trumae Lucas said.
The Blue Hens, seeded sixth, step onto the Webster Bank Arena court on Saturday to face No. 2 seed Kentucky in the semifinals of the Bridgeport regional (Noon ET/ESPN). Immediately after, top-seeded Connecticut faces No. 4 seed Maryland. The story line for that second game is clear: Can Maryland star forward Alyssa Thomas do enough to lift her Terrapins over the talented Huskies?
But things are a little more nuanced for the first game, as Kentucky will bring the heat with its relentless defense while Delaware will try to play smart and composed facing the most on-ball pressure it has ever seen. "We have faced some different defenses throughout this tournament," Delaware star Elena Delle Donne said. "But none like this."
Martin has shown her players plenty of film of Kentucky's pressure, as the Wildcats are athletic and harass the ballhandler all over the court. The film is meant to show the Blue Hens what they should and should not do. For example, Delaware should not set too many on-ball screens, because Kentucky uses those screens as an opportunity to bring a double-team to the ballhandler, a trap that usually happens in a spot on the floor where the ballhandler also has an additional defender in the sideline or backcourt line. "We watched it all on film," Lucas said. "We'll try to avoid on-ball screens as much as possible because we've seen how much that has gotten other teams in trouble."
This brings us to the million-dollar question: How will Delaware free up Delle Donne, who comes into the regional averaging just under 26 points a game. It's no secret that everything the Blue Hens do flows through their 6-foot-5 point forward. Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell said his team will aim to make Delle Donne catch the ball outside of her comfort zone. "The challenge with Elena, though, is that she is comfortable in a lot of different spots on the floor so that makes the job a little bit tougher," Mitchell said.
When in its half-court defense, Kentucky rarely brings a double-team unless there is a specific opportunity to do so (like, as mentioned above, an on-ball screen). This means Delle Donne should be able to face up on the wing and find cutters. Delaware must keep its spacing in order for cuts to be productive and lead to baskets. "She understands defenses a lot better than she did when she was younger," Martin said of Delle Donne. "She now knows where to look on the floor for openings and cutters." Martin added that the Blue Hens must maximize the possessions they get and added, "And that means getting Elena touches."
Turnovers will happen, but when they don't, Delaware must get high-percentage shots. The Blue Hens can't compound mistakes by firing up bad shots -- that's a deadly combo.
Because of the quick turnaround time in the tournament, neither team has had much time to revamp its approach. Kentucky wants a fast game with dozens of turnovers. Delaware wants to take care of the ball and work its offense through Delle Donne. Whichever team does what it wants more often than the other team will likely win.
Before Friday's practice session, Delle Donne and her teammates looked happy and excited -- not nervous at all. "We're keeping things loose, enjoying ourselves," Delle Donne said. "We want to keep that style, not be too serious."
Until the lights go on, of course.
12dBonnie D. Ford