Delle Donne enjoying ‘amazing ride’ at Delaware

Whenever Delaware’s NCAA tournament run ends, Elena Delle Donne

will look back on her college career with no regrets.

”Honestly, I think the happy ending has already occurred,”

Blue Hens coach Tina Martin said. ”The happy ending is that Elena

is happy.”

After starring at Ursuline Academy in Delaware, Delle Donne

accepted a scholarship to perennial title contender Connecticut in

2008. Almost immediately after arriving at the school, the

18-year-old got homesick and left in tears.

Saying she was burned out from basketball, the 6-foot-5 Delle

Donne enrolled at Delaware and played on the volleyball team during

her freshman year. Eventually, she approached Martin and asked to

join the basketball team.

And it’s been a thrill ride ever since.

Delle Donne has become the most prolific scorer in Colonial

Athletic Association history, was voted CAA player of the year

three times and led Delaware to two straight league titles, the

last coming Sunday to extend the team’s school-record winning

streak to 25 games. The Blue Hens became a fixture in the Top 25,

and last year they recorded their first-ever NCAA tournament

win.

She also raised the level of interest in women’s basketball

within the state to a point where the home arena is regularly sold

out and Sunday will host the opening round of the NCAA tournament

for the first time.

”It’s been great for me, and I think the state of Delaware has

had a fine ride with this also,” Delle Donne said. ”Me being a

hometown girl, staying home, really competing and getting us on the

national scene has been pretty awesome for the state. They’ve been

behind us the whole way.”

None of this would have happened if Delle Donne stayed at

UConn.

”She could be playing at Connecticut right now but that’s not

where her heart is,” Blue Hens guard Lauren Carra said.

Delle Donne has the ability to drive to the basket, dominate the

lane, pop a baseline jumper or nail a 3-pointer. She might have won

a national championship or two with the Huskies, but doesn’t think

about what might have been because it could never top what

ultimately occurred.

”This is the best decision of my life,” Delle Donne said.

”When I made the decision a while back and I was playing

volleyball, I never would have thought I would be here at this

time. But it’s been the most amazing ride ever. I wouldn’t change

anything.

”I’ve just enjoyed playing this game that I’ve absolutely

loved, meeting some awesome teammates that I will be friends with

for the rest of my life. I’ve built bonds with my coaches that will

last forever. It’s far more than championships for me. We’ve been

able to have our own little championships with the CAA. It’s been a

different challenge here, different than having to win the national

title.”

The first obstacle Delle Donne had to overcome was the angst

over abandoning UConn and the game of basketball.

”Elena did what society told her to: You’re the No. 1 player,

you should go to the No. 1 school,” Martin said. ”So she chose

Connecticut, But bottom line, in her heart, she did not want to

leave the state of Delaware.”

Going home wasn’t an immediate cure.

”I saw her on campus during her freshman year,” Martin

recalled. ”She was walking with her head down, her shoulders were

slumped. Talking to our volleyball coach, she told me the kid just

really needs to be left alone. She said the kid is stressed out,

she wants to enjoy college. Basketball has been such a burden for

her, with so much pressure since the eighth grade.”

Delle Donne realized she didn’t belong at Connecticut almost the

instant she got there.

”The only thing I regret is how I left Connecticut. I didn’t

meet with the girls, I didn’t meet with the coach. I just left,”

she said. ”But I was 18, was panicked and did what I thought I had

to do. Obviously, I can’t change that now. Being grown up now, I

would have done it differently. Other than that, no regrets.”

Now that Delle Donne is playing basketball again, she holds her

head high on campus – but not with the swagger befitting one of the

best female players in the land.

”Elena is a great player, obviously, but you wouldn’t think

she’s the superstar of the team if you just saw her walking

around,” teammate Trumae Lucas said. ”She definitely fits in with

the rest of us. … Connecticut has its history, but she made

history here.”

Delle Donne has been able to enjoy her basketball success a mere

15 minutes from where she grew up.

”We have a family barn where Mom cooks dinner,” said Gene

Delle Donne, Elena’s older brother. ”I think that’s Elena’s

favorite place in the whole world.”

Delle Donne puts family ahead of everything. Being at UConn, a

five-hour trip from Delaware, would have been too much separation

from her family – most notably older sister Lizzie, who is deaf,

blind, and has cerebral palsy.

”No doubt, Elena is one of Lizzie’s favorite people,” said

Gene, who will be behind the Delaware bench Sunday when the

sixth-seed Blue Hens (30-3) face West Virginia (17-13) on Sunday.

Delaware is in the same bracket as top-seed Connecticut, so there’s

a chance Delle Donne could face the Huskies down the road.

”I realize that,” she said, ”but we’ve got a long, long way

to go before we get there.”

Delle Donne’s final college game will serve as a prelude to the

next phase of her career, the WNBA. She will likely be a top-five

pick.

”I can’t wait for that,” Delle Donne said. ”Obviously there’s

a little more to do here, then the next chapter starts. I think

it’s going to be pretty awesome.”