Tuesday, July 29, 2014
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Delaware is where Delle Donne's heart's always been

Nation's top scorer enjoying basketball again while being close to family

Elena Delle Donne admits that going to Connecticut for basketball was a mistake. (Mel Evans/AP file photo)
Elena Delle Donne admits that going to Connecticut for basketball was a mistake. (Mel Evans/AP file photo)

NEWARK, Del. - Sometimes bigger isn't always better, even when you are the best.

Elena Delle Donne knew what she was expected to do.

In 2008, as the No. 1-rated high school player in the nation at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington, she would have been welcomed by every women's college basketball program in the country.

In the world of college recruiting, it is expected that a prospect as talented as Delle Donne will end up at one of the super-elite programs.

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    So even though something was tugging at her, telling her that might not be right for her, Delle Donne did what was expected.

    She committed to the University of Connecticut - NCAA women's basketball royalty.

    At UConn, Delle Donne's collegiate experience was preordained to be wrapped around national championships and undefeated seasons.

    But that thing kept tugging.

    UConn was not where she wanted to be - neither was Tennessee, Stanford, Duke or any other big-name college program.

    In June 2008, after only 2 days of a summer-school program at Connecticut, Delle Donne returned to her home in Wilmington. She returned her scholarship.

    More than that, she said she was "burned out" on basketball.

    She went on to enroll at the University of Delaware and joined the volleyball team as a walk-on.

    Was that really it? Could the player some called the "LeBron James of women's basketball" really just walk away from the game?

    "I wasn't sure," said Delle Donne, now a 22-year-old junior starring on the Blue Hens women's basketball team. "I wanted to stay an athlete, play volleyball and be a part of a team.

    "I wanted to go to college, and Delaware is a great school that is near my family. I just thought I'd go to school, enjoy my freshman year, play volleyball and see where it takes me."

    OK, so we know it ultimately took her back to basketball.

    Delle Donne joined the Blue Hens team for the 2009-10 season and averaged 26.7 points - third highest in the nation.

    The magic was still there.

    She was named the Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year. She became UD's first All-America when she was named to the third team by the Associated Press and honorable mention by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association.

    As a sophomore, despite missing 11 games while being treated for Lyme disease, Delle Donne averaged 25.3 points and 7.8 rebounds.

    AP named her All-America honorable mention.

    Over the summer, Delle Donne led the United States in scoring as it won the gold medal at the 2011 World University Games in Shenzhen, China.

    Coming into the 2011-12 season, Delle Donne was on the preseason Wade National Player of the Year Trophy Watch List and the John Wooden Top 30 list.

    Currently, she leads the NCAA in scoring with 29.8 points a game for a Blue Hens team that has its highest ranking ever at 20th.

    Asked whether she enjoys playing basketball again, she replied: "That's very safe to say. I love this school. I love my teammates. I love my coaches and I'm near my family.

    "It's fun. It's a great sport that I love doing."

    Family - that's what was tugging at her 3 years ago.

    Delle Donne knew she didn't want to be away from her parents and her older sister, Lizzie, who is blind and deaf and has autism and cerebral palsy.

    But every expectation was that, as the top recruit in the nation, she would attend school someplace that would take her away from her family.

    Signing with Connecticut was a mistake. She blamed basketball.

    "I was somewhere that I wasn't comfortable," Delle Donne recalled. "I wanted to be near home, and at the time, I blamed the sport for pulling me away from my family.

    "Once I came to Delaware, I realized what was most important to me and eventually that I really did love basketball and wanted to be back involved in it."

    But it was a gradual process.

    Imagine being Delaware women's basketball coach Tina Martin. You've built a solid mid-major program that has been to a couple of NCAA tournaments.

    Suddenly, you learn that the best high school player in the nation, a once-in-a-lifetime player who could change your program, is on campus.

    But she's going to play volleyball. What do you do?

    "I left her alone," Martin said. "I had seen Elena play since she was in the eighth grade. She had such a reputation in [the state of Delaware].

    "I thought if she was walking away from a sport that she was so good at and had worked for so long at, there had to be some tremendous strain on her. I certainly was not going to add to that strain on her."

    Martin instructed her assistants not to contact Delle Donne. She told her players this tremendous player was coming to Delaware, but she was playing volleyball now.

    It was fine if they met her and became friends, but Martin did not want her players to try to recruit Delle Donne to the basketball team.

    And that was the way things went.

    Delle Donne had won a Delaware state volleyball state championship, and, as a freshman middle hitter at UD, she helped the Blue Hens to a 19-16 record, the CAA Tournament championship and an NCAA tournament bid.

    The Blue Hens women's basketball team went 15-15 in 2008-09.

    But back in her comfort zone, Delle Donne said she began to realize she had not burned out on basketball after all.

    After having been a spectator at the games, Delle Donne came to Martin and said she wanted to talk. Later, she wanted to know whether she could come to the gym and shoot. In April of her freshman year, she asked Martin whether she could join the program.

    Blue Hens junior point guard Kayla Miller had played with Delle Donne at Ursuline. She went to George Washington University out of high school, but transferred to Delaware after one semester in D.C.

    "When I found Elena was playing volleyball, I was, like, 'Good for her. At least she's still playing a sport,' " Miller said. "But when I came back to Delaware, I had a few conversations with Elena, and she was telling me that she missed basketball and wanted to play again.

    "As her teammate for so long, I can definitely see that she is happy on the court again. You see the passion, emotion and excitement in her. We feed off her energy. She brings it every night."

    At 6-5 and with a shooter's touch that extends beyond the three-point arc, Delle Donne is an unstoppable force on offense.

    As a junior, she likely will be in the running with Baylor forward Brittney Griner and Stanford forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike for National Player of the Year honors.

    Delle Donne, who might be a longshot candidate for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team coached by Connecticut's Geno Auriemma, can still accomplish all of the things she wanted in basketball. But she can do it on terms that personally work for her.

    "It's quite the opportunity we have at Delaware," Delle Donne said. "We're nationally ranked, and we're getting to play against a lot of top programs.

    "A lot of people say, 'Well, you could have won four national championships at UConn.' That obviously hasn't happened here. It would be amazing if we can win one here. This team can do something special.

    "I wanted to play, but I wanted to enjoy playing. I wanted to take it in the moment. That is something I am able to do at Delaware. I don't think I could have done it at any other school in the country."

     


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    John Smallwood Daily News Sports Columnist
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