NEWARK, Del. — 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.”