“High expectations” are the two words that most accurately described the outlook of the University of Delaware women’s basketball team heading into the season.
With all five starters returning from last year’s 31-2 team, which advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament, anything shy of a return to postseason play and at least a first-round win will be considered a disappointment. Especially dissatisfied will be the record 2,580 season-ticket holders, many whom have already purchased tickets to the first two rounds of this season’s tournament, to be held at the Bob Carpenter Center March 24 and 26.
Despite the high expectations, it might end up being two different words that end up defining the 2012-13 campaign: Lyme disease.
The high expectations all ride on the assumption that superstar Elena Delle Donne – who is battling recurring symptoms of the disease – is healthy and available for most of games once the Hens open conference play after the holiday. Delle Donne, a two-time CAA Player of the Year and 2012 first-team All-American, has appeared in just three games.
During the Maryland game Dec. 20, there were glimpses of Delle Donne the All-American when she nailed a three-pointer at the 8:05 mark of the second half to pull the Hens within three. The crowd erupted. There was hope.
But then there were signs of a player worn down from a physical off-court battle far greater than any she’s faced against a defender, or in her case, multiple defenders. Because she is admittedly not in playing shape, Delle Donne tired faster than usual, evident when she signaled to the bench for a substitute with a little over four minutes to play and the Hens trailing by just seven points. She looked weak at times, and despite finishing with a game-high 19 points, shot an uncharacteristic 30 percent from the floor.
Against Monmouth two days later, Delle Donne’s body responded strongly as she scored 30 points on 10 of 14 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds while logging 24 minutes.
“I felt really good today,” remarked Delle Donne following the Monmouth win. “It was a great feeling to wake up after the Maryland game and feel refreshed and not exhausted. I think I’m getting healthier and hopefully turning the corner on feeling better.”
The Hens face Villanova Saturday in the Blue Sky Classic at Dartmouth and then play Dartmouth or Duquesne the next day. The back-to-back games will be a crucial test for Delle Donne, because Delaware (6-3) needs its star player healthy heading into Colonial Athletic Conference play starting Jan. 10. Fortunately for the Hens, 17th-year coach Tina Martin has a talented supporting cast, led by three seniors averaging over 28 minutes each.
Lauren Carra became just the 23rd player in UD women’s history to score 1,000 points in the Maryland game. The only player besides Delle Donne averaging double figures, Carra is scoring 14 points per game. She’s an excellent penetrator, but for the Hens to be a great team, the preseason All-CAA second-team selection has to shoot well from beyond the arc. Carra came into the season ranked 10th in UD history shooting 32 percent from 3-point range, but after nine games is hitting just 26 percent.
Kayla Miller might be the most recognizable Blue Hen not named Delle Donne. The senior guard is perhaps more famous for selling souvenirs at Blue Rocks games than shooting the rock at the Bob. But don’t let her bobbing ponytail and kid-friendly smile fool you; she’s all business on the court. Whether she’s diving for a loose ball or chest bumping a teammate, what doesn’t show up in her stat line is that she’s one of the most passionate, exciting players to ever play at the Bob.
Danielle Parker leads the team in rebounding (10 per game) and steals (15). She has a nice touch inside and can hit a jump shot under pressure when called upon. Her role becomes significantly more important when Delle Donne is not on the floor.
Delaware set a women’s attendance record against Maryland when 5,083 fans “mobbed the Bob” and created a sellout atmosphere similar to the Mike Brey era. Time will tell how many more sellouts there will be this season and whether or not one of them comes in late March when UD hosts the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
For that tournament sellout to happen, Delaware will have to be playing in it. And whether or not that happens comes down to two words: Elena Delle Donne.
Contact Jon Buzby at JonBuzby@hotmail.com and follow him @JonBuzby on Twitter.