Home is perfect fit for Blue Hens

NEWARK, Del. -- Elena Delle Donne and Delaware get their chance to be Cinderella.

Except that in the fairy tale, Cinderella wins by escaping her home for grander, palatial surroundings. In the basketball version, the Blue Hens hope to travel all the way to New Orleans, by way of Connecticut. But there is no place they and their larger-than-life star would rather be than this small state, in a small gym with old-school bleachers at either end.

Games in the NCAA tournament are about moving forward, progressing to the next step. This one was for Delaware, too. It was also about celebrating what happened here over the past four years.

In front of a partisan crowd that sold out the Bob Carpenter Center weeks in advance and arrived hours early -- and after receiving video encouragement from Vice President Joe Biden, a fellow Delawarian -- sixth-seeded Delaware beat 11th-seeded West Virginia 66-53 to advance to the second round.

Down seven points at halftime and looking at an ending unworthy of the story that begat it, the Blue Hens rallied behind 33 points from Elena Delle Donne. She scored 20 points in the second half. So did West Virginia.

When it was over, the fans stood but went nowhere, waiting until Delle Donne and coach Tina Martin finished television interviews on the court so the crowd could offer one more round of cheers as the two headed to the locker room.

"This was actually even better than I could have imagined," Delle Donne said. "Our fans were absolutely crazy today. And the atmosphere, it was amazing. Sometimes I saw West Virginia coming down the court trying to call a play, and they're all looking at each other, getting angry because they can't hear. They didn't even know the play."

The doors didn't open Sunday until an hour before tip, but that didn't stop a crowd from gathering closer to two hours early, some clustering around the doors of the arena and others ignoring the chill to tailgate in the parking lot.

When Delaware played its final home game of the 2008-09 season, a few months after Delle Donne finished her one and only season with the volleyball team after she gave up basketball, the published attendance said there were 844 people in the stands. The school didn't bother pulling out the seats on one side of the gym in those days, the practice court left open as the squeaking of sneakers echoed through empty seats.

There was no line at the door.

Vicky and Tom Kaczmarczyk were among the throng Sunday, proudly wearing their blue and yellow; he's a Delaware native and she's related to the state by marriage. Only one other athlete matters as much here.

"I'd say it's Joe Flacco, Elena Delle Donne," Vicky said of the state's sporting royalty.

The adoration wasn't why Delle Done returned home after originally committing to Connecticut, not directly. She didn't even want to play basketball for the Blue Hens or anyone else back then. But the state was ready for her when she was ready for it.

"Usually if Delaware grows talent, it goes elsewhere for bigger and better things," Tom said. "She's the talent that stayed home. And people love her. They just love her, love her family, her bond with her sister.

"We just love her."

There was, of course, a basketball game that had to be won to avoid turning the afternoon into a wake. West Virginia seized the early upper hand. It pressured Delaware all over the court early and took the home team out of its offensive rhythm. Delaware entered the game No. 25 in the nation in rebounding, while West Virginia wasn't even in the top 100, but it was the Big 12 team that piled up nine offensive rebounds in the first half. Delle Donne's shooting -- she hit 6-of-11 shots before halftime on mostly difficult looks -- kept her team in contention.

Martin switched out man-to-man defense in the second half, the zone flummoxing West Virginia to such an extent that it didn't score its first point after the break until nearly seven minutes had elapsed. Junior Kelsey Buchanan and senior Danielle Parker rose to the challenge, literally, on the boards. The Blue Hens finished the game with 16 offensive rebounds, three more than the Mountaineers, with Buchanan and Parker combining for 16 points and 16 rebounds against the major-conference players supposed to physically dominate them.

And there was Delle Donne, who got to the free throw line 13 times in the second half. There was no answer for her. For all the points she scored, that was most evident against the pressure that so troubled the Blue Hens early. It won't show up in the box score, but she posted up more on the wrong end of the court than she did on the offensive end, a permanent relief valve against the press.

West Virginia coach Mike Carey has drawn up plans to try to cope with everyone from Diana Taurasi to Maya Moore and Brittney Griner. He was no less frustrated by Delle Donne.

"How many times on the press -- we had them stopped and they just lobbed it up to her," Carey said. "Then when they lob it up to her, if that's a post, we've probably got a [forward or center] on her, you know what I mean? But being a guard, we have a guard on her. And then when we're pressing, they just lob over the top and she would get it. And you don't want to foul her because she's a great foul shooter.

"She presents a lot of problems, she really does."

She always has. Asked about the first time he noticed a crowd react to his sister in quite the way they do now, Gene Delle Donne suggested when she was in third grade. Delaware's Kayla Miller, a friend and teammate for more than a decade, pointed to the state championship game the two played in as sophomores for Ursuline Academy. That game, too, was played in the Bob Carpenter Center. Delle Donne scored 50 points in the win.

"That was also a sold-out crowd, crazy fans," Elena Delle Donne said. "There was a little bit more of a rivalry going on in that game, but this was just all about Delaware, which was so cool."

After her team escaped an upset bid by Albany to reach Tuesday's second-round game, North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell wondered aloud if the fans will still show up next year when Delle Donne is in the WNBA. It's a fair question, but it also isn't the point. This isn't North Carolina or Connecticut or Notre Dame or Tennessee. This doesn't happen all the time here. Whatever comes after Delle Donne, she set this moment in motion.

It's all right if it doesn't last. It is all right as serendipity.

"I was looking for a school where I would fit in to be able to play," Blue Hens senior Lauren Carra said. "At the time, Delaware really wasn't that school that was all over the map. They barely had a .500 record at the time. I wanted to go to a school I could play at, and Delaware just happened to be that school. And then I see in one of my [high school] classes one day that Elena Delle Donne is coming to Delaware, flashing on the bottom of the screen on ESPN, and that kind of just changed the look of the whole team when she came in."

Ernie Delle Donne, Elena's dad, stood a little apart from the crowd in front of the arena before the game. Poker faced as always, he nonetheless could barely speak, lest emotions get the best of him.

He told a friend who stopped by how good this place had been for his daughter. That goes both ways, came the response.

And now, Elena Delle Donne and her teammates earned one more game to soak up all of this. One more game at home.

"I think I'm just so focused on winning and doing what we have to do and focusing on that opponent that I try not to let any of the emotions get involved," she said. "Because I think if I started getting emotional, it would definitely affect the way way I'm playing. … Whenever this season ends, that's when I can kind of look back on it and get emotional."

Late in the game, Delle Donne shot the second of two free throws. As it left her hand, it looked just the slightest bit short. Breaking the silence that had been afforded her in the act of shooting, a voice in what sounded like the upper rows of the arena yelled out "Get in there."

The ball snuck in over the front of the rim. As it would have with or without the encouragement.

You could be forgiven on this afternoon for thinking team and fans were working together.