Looking over top of Citizens Bank Park (are we really 3 weeks from baseball season?) as I take off from Philadelphia to Little Rock (via St. Louis) I'm left to think about the journey Delaware has taken since Tina Martin took over 16 years ago.
The Blue Hens have been to the NCAA Tournament before. They won the 2001 America East Championship, and earned an at-large bid in 2006. The story line is the same: Delaware will be playing on the home court of their opponent. In 2001 it was N.C. State, in 2006 it was Michigan State. It is hard enough to win in the NCAA tournament, half of the 64 teams in the field will be turning in their uniforms by Sunday night after all, but to do it on a road court?
This time the story line is different, too. Those times Delaware was clearly the underdog, a 13-seed in Raleigh, and a 12-seed in East Lansing. But my second plane today isn't going to an ACC or Big 10 school, it's going to Little Rock, home of the Arkansas-Little Rock Trojans, who are making their 3rd straight NCAA appearence in school history, but hosting games for the first time. At one point earlier this season they were 3-8 after losing at South Dakota State, but their fortunes changed when they reached the Sun Belt schedule, going 12-4 and knocking off traditional mid-major power Middle Tennesee State in overtime after blowing a 22 point lead in regulation.
The Trojans are not a particularly old team, starting two seniors, a junior, a sophomore, and the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year in Taylor Gault. While many of them have played on the last 2 Trojan NCAA teams, their roles have been dramatically increased. While a very good team, and certainly capable of winning, it is hard to compare UALR to Michigan State or N.C. State.
You see, for the first time, Delaware is the favorite tomorrow. A season that started with the potential of knowing Elena Delle Donne was healthier and coming off a steller performance at the World University game, along with adding two solid transfer guards in Akeema Richards and Trumae Lucas, there was a chance this could be a special year, but who could imagine this script: Beating Rhode Island by 46 to open the season, and then using brilliant defense and timely shooting to defeat #11 Penn State? Solid road wins over Villanova, St. Bonaventure (who would only lose 3 games themselves), Princeton, Wake Forest, and Providence set up the Terrpain Classic at Maryland.
The Blue Hens just had to beat East Carolina to earn a shot at No. 5 Maryland, and dispatched the Pirates to go to 10-0 heading into a game with their highest ranked opponent in school history. The Blue Hens trailed by 1 at the half, picked up 33 points from Elena Delle Donne, but the ACC squad shot 49-percent from the floor and never let the Blue Hens over the top after the three minute mark of the second half. That's okay, most people expected that loss, but how would the Hens rebound? By simply having the best CAA run in 10 years.
Delaware started with a 74-51 win at home against Towson, and the snowball just started rolling. Only three teams kept the Blue Hens within 10, the only two games that were severely in doubt was the game at James Madison they trailed by 8 in the second half, and the Drexel game where Delle Donne shrugged off a rough shooting night with a basket near the buzzer to win 40-39. A team scores 40 points and win? That's Tina Martin.
The Blue Hens haven't always had the best offense in her 16 years, but you know they'll play tenacious man and zone defense. Routinely one of the leaders in scoring defense, until this year Delaware played plenty of games in the 50s and 60s comfortably. After all, it doesn't matter how many points you score as long as the other team has at least one point less. But again, this year is different: Sure they have Elena and her 27.5 points per game, but there are other peices to this puzzle.
There is junior Danielle Parker, the fellow inside player (when Delle Donne is playing forward), who scored 10+ points in 8 straight games at one point. She just scored 15 points total in the 3 wins in the CAA Tournament, which could be a scary proposition for the Trojans.
Another junior stepping up recently is Lauren Carra. So you want to double-team Elena when she's on the wing? The Blue Hens are fine with that, because Lauren has been open, ready to shoot, and hitting her shots recently. With at least two 3-pointers in her last 5 games, it has at least forced defenses to think about laying off of Delle Donne.
And then there are the transfers: Lucas and Richards have opened up a fast break game in the Blue Hens offense rarely seen in Tina's years. Both guards average over 6.5 points a contest, with Lucas being an outstanding assist artist and Richards grabbing key rebounds to start breaks. Perhaps even more important, they have brought an element of depth. Seniors Jocelyn Bailey and Vanessa Kobango have acceped reduced roles as seniors, but still show up with key contributions if any of the above end up in foul trouble. Sarah Acker, a St. Joe's transfer, has overcome a hip injury to give the Blue Hens another quality body inside when needed, and Kayla Miller from GW and Ursuline is perhaps the best true point guard on the squad. While Elena has led in scoring in every game, all have made key contributions in wins, 30-1 doesn't happen with one person.
Except maybe it does. Tina Martin has done nothing short of an amzing job molding this team into the CAA Champions they are. The team trusts her leadership, and her track record proves she's more than a one trick pony.
Her last three years in the America East from 1999-2001 the Blue Hens won 16, 21, and 26 games, finally conquering the Vermont and Maine mountains in her last season, getting to celebrate on the Burlington, Vermont floor with such names as Megan Dellegrotti, Carrie Timmins, and Christina Rible.
While the CAA posed an even higher mountain in the Old Dominion dynasty, Delaware continued to thrive, winning 19 or more games in their first 6 seasons in the league, as Tina nurtured local talent in Tiara Malcolm from Caravel and Tyresa Smith of Polytech into stars.
After a two year hiccup from 07-09, this current group has now won 21, 20, and 30 games. Delaware has proven it belongs on the short list of the best mid-majors in the country.
There is really just one line missing on Tina's resume: A post-season win. She is 0-8 in post-season games, 0-6 in the WNIT, and 0-2 in the NCAA. Every time it seems like Delaware has a chance: a home game, an even draw, it seemed an injury or illness, or just conference tournament fatigue, cropped up. Even UALR has an NCAA tournament win from when they best Georgia Tech 2 seasons ago.
But again, this is different. Delaware may have the best player in the country. Elena's supporting cast is as good as any group Martin has put together. This feels like it's Delaware's time, will Little Rock be her place? Win No. 309 would be her sweetest yet.
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