Commentary

Delle Donne fitting in at Delaware

Freshman impacting the sport at Delaware just as much as if she'd gone to UConn

Originally Published: January 17, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

NEWARK, Del. -- Adults tried to walk briskly through the chilly rain; kids couldn't help splashing through puddles. They were all hurrying toward Bob Carpenter Center to see Delaware square off with nearby rival Drexel, and the gym was certain to be pretty full.

Delaware has had good teams before, making the NCAA tournament in 2001 and 2007. But there has never been anything quite like this before with Blue Hens women's basketball. The local superstar, the one good enough to go anywhere, stayed put.

[+] EnlargeElena Delle Donne
Mark Campbell/www.henshots.comElena Delle Donne and Delaware are 11-5 overall, 3-2 in the CAA.

Well, eventually, she did. After leaving first. Most women's hoops fans know the saga of Elena Delle Donne's decision to go to UConn, her quick change of heart, her choice to walk on to the Delaware volleyball squad last season and her realization she wasn't "burned out" on basketball.

She was burned out on trying to force herself to do what she thought she was "supposed" to do rather than what was in her heart.

Delle Donne is back on the basketball court this season, and it's where she belongs. Furthermore, she's at the school where she belongs.

Thank goodness it worked out this way.

When you see the crowd of 3,137 here Sunday, that the excitement is about Delle Donne, you don't doubt for a second she did the right thing. Could she have made it at UConn? Absolutely. But would it truly have made her happy? Absolutely not.

"I was watching the UConn game with a friend," Delle Donne said of the Huskies' dismantling of Notre Dame on Saturday night. "And my friend said, 'Are you upset about this? About the choice you made?'

"And I'm not. This is the right place for me, and I couldn't be any happier with it. You come in here and the atmosphere is crazy, the fans are awesome, and I'm right near home.

"I'm proud of UConn. That's something maybe people wouldn't think I'd feel, but I do. Those girls were my teammates for a little bit, and coach [Geno] Auriemma and I had a great relationship. So I am proud of them. They're doing things in the women's game that haven't been done."

But Delle Donne is doing her own thing. Her situation, if not unique in college sports, is extremely rare: a top-of-the-line player with such a compelling and deeply personal reason to stay close to her home and compete for a conference that -- if the circumstances were different -- would be very unlikely to get her.

Her relationship with her older sister, who is disabled, has been well-chronicled, as has so much of Delle Donne's life. Sure, there are people in this area who are tired of the whole story. And UConn fans who don't want to hear anymore about it.

But the connection to UConn is fraying, as it should. Delle Donne is now 14 games into her Delaware basketball career, and this just looks and feels right.

Even though it turned out on this day that Delle Donne and her teammates didn't actually triumph. It looked like they wouldn't … then that they would … and then it slipped away from them.

It's also important to credit the Dragons for taking it away. Despite the fact leading scorer Gabriela Marginean fouled out in the first overtime -- her fifth came on a Delle Donne four-point play -- Drexel prevailed 70-67 in double overtime.

"Emotionally, it was like a roller coaster," Delle Donne said. "There were a few times, especially in the first overtime, where I thought we'd won it. When we were up by five, it seemed like we had it. But I guess that will make us a lot stronger."

Delle Donne had 27 points, seven rebounds, six blocks and five assists and played all 50 minutes. What more could you possibly ask? Well … there was a moment in the first overtime when she looked to be in position to take a charge, but she opted instead not to contest the basket.

And in retrospect, maybe it was a split-second decision in which just a bit more killer instinct on defense might have sealed the game. But again, the referees might have whistled her for a foul, so …

Win or lose, these are the kinds of stat lines to get used to with Delle Donne, who is now averaging 25.1 points and 9.4 rebounds. She'll rack up the numbers. But she knows she'll need to make more "little" plays, too.

Delle Donne's learning curve will be different than it would have been at UConn. And her impact will be different, too.

She's as big a fish as is likely to ever be in this size pond. How can that not be a positive thing for women's basketball? UConn has done an enormous amount, obviously, to help the sport progress. With her talent, intelligence and cover-girl smile, Delle Donne would be another of the "rock stars" in Storrs.

Instead, she's that in Newark. And, frankly, the way she can impact the sport here could be just as important as it would be if she'd gone to a big-conference powerhouse.

"I think it could give people in the recruiting process kind of a different option," she said. "Maybe they'll look for different things other than just going big. They might feel pressured to go to a big school like I did, but maybe they'll stop and really think about what's important to them. And that might mean they end up in a smaller place where they're extremely happy."

Without question, it's a great thing for Delaware athletics and the Colonial Athletic Association. Drexel made its first NCAA tournament appearance last season behind Marginean, who is from Romania (she went a bit further from home to play hoops than Delle Donne).

Now a senior, Marginean -- third in the league in scoring behind James Madison's Dawn Evans and Delle Donne -- appreciates how a player of Delle Donne's stature helps bring out the best in her, her teammates and the rest of the league.

"Her coming to Delaware brought the CAA a lot of attention," Marginean said. "It was great playing against her."

The game didn't have the "perfect" ending for Delle Donne, although it could have. At the end of regulation and the first overtime, she launched lengthy shots that beat the buzzer and drew rim. She was disappointed afterward, feeling a victory had escaped, but … she still had a lot of smiling left to do.

Because even long after the game, a line of people in a Carpenter Center concourse waited for team autographs. Adults and children were dressed in Delaware blue and gold. They talked about how pumped they think the Blue Hens will be for the rematch with Drexel on Jan. 31. A mom looked at her daughter's signed poster and said, "We can get this framed."

Three youngsters, clearly sports junkies, stood comparing their autograph haul and were asked who their favorite player was.

Nick Cradler, age 11, and Kellen Sweeney and Brandon Looney, both 10, all answered, "Elena Delle Donne."

The boys are fifth-graders at St. Ann School in Wilmington, and pointed out their school is not far from Delle Donne's high school, Ursuline Academy. What do they like best about her game?

"Everything!" Brandon answered emphatically. "She's a really great player."

Then Nick added, "And we like that she's from Delaware."

Exactly. She's from here … and she's still here. To these boys, just how much that matters showed in the excitement that was still evident on their faces. Like all kids, they crave their own local sports heroes. In Delle Donne, they've got a big one.

For them and everybody else who shivered through the drizzle to get to this game, she made it worth the trip. They've got a lot of that to look forward to.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.