Blue Hens head to first Sweet 16

NEWARK, Del. -- All right, how much do you really love the game?

That's the question Elena Delle Donne told her dad she thought some higher power had posed when she was diagnosed with Lyme disease during her second season playing basketball at the University of Delaware.

She was the high school star who became even more famous for walking away from the game than she had been as a 6-foot-5 kid doing things on a basketball court nobody had ever seen someone her size do before.

She was the lost soul who found what she was looking for in the touch of a sister and the embrace of a community. And who found her way back to a game she once swore she would never again play.

She said she loved the game again? Fair enough, the unspoken challenge came: prove it. Prove it by coming back from that illness. Prove it by coming back a second time when the same condition sidelined her again this season.

Was this a good enough answer? Behind 33 points from Delle Donne, No. 6 seed Delaware erased its second sizable halftime deficit in as many rounds and upset third-seeded North Carolina 78-69 to reach its first Sweet 16.

"I don't think I wanted anything more than this win," Delle Donne said. "And that's saying a lot."

She wasn't alone, not on a night when her teammates and a capacity crowd of nearly 5,000 people, including the vice president, seemed eager to answer the same question.

This was the game Delaware wasn't supposed to win, even on its home court. It was a nice mid-major team with a singular player, sure, but last year's NCAA tournament, in which it received a No. 3 seed of its own and then lost in the second round to Kansas, hardly the best the major conferences had to offer, supposedly proved it couldn't step up in class. It beat one of those teams in the first round this season, but even that win against West Virginia required a furious second-half comeback. Two places separated North Carolina and Delaware in the final AP poll of the regular season, but Tuesday threatened to expose what some felt was a chasm between them in talent.

North Carolina scored easily off the opening tip, and had only slightly less trouble pounding the ball inside on subsequent possessions, as 6-6 Waltiea Rolle was too much for Delle Donne or anyone else on the Blue Hens to handle. Rolle's third field goal in the game's first six minutes gave the Tar Heels a 14-9 lead, which suddenly felt all but insurmountable when Delle Donne left the game limping moments later.

All eyes were on her as she lay by the bench to receive treatment, vanished behind the stands to test out her right leg and finally returned to the scorer's table after two minutes of game time.

"Elena's a huge part of this team, and when I saw it, I got nervous," Delaware senior Lauren Carra said. "We came so far as a team, the seniors especially. And all you're thinking of is what could have happened. Is she OK? It wouldn't have been a good ending if that didn't come up good. But it did. It was just meant to be tonight."

It didn't quite feel meant to be when, after Delaware rallied to take a 32-31 lead and bring the fans out of their seats, North Carolina's Megan Buckland hit four consecutive 3-pointers to push her team's lead to 11 points.

But after a North Carolina turnover with five seconds remaining in the half, Delle Donne took the inbounds in the backcourt, quickly dribbled toward the 3-point line and drilled a shot at the buzzer.

"I honestly think that 3-pointer was one of Elena's biggest shots of her career," said Gene Delle Donne, the older brother who has seen so many of them.

It also set the stage for the biggest half in the career of one of the Blue Hens. Just not the one North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell recruited in middle school.

It is almost impossible to take your eyes off Delle Donne on the offensive end of the court. Like Lionel Messi or Wayne Gretzky in his prime, the anticipation of her getting the ball is more compelling than what most players do when they actually have it in their hands. But for a time in the second half Tuesday, the unthinkable happened. She actually receded into the background -- not entirely (she still scored 14 points), but enough.

Instead of Delle Donne leading the charge, Trumae Lucas took control of the game. Her second-half totals included 16 points and three steals, but her impact went beyond numbers, beyond the charge she drew with her team down one point that prompted perhaps the biggest roar of the night. A transfer from Florida whose minutes ebbed around midseason, Lucas played the half of her life.

Ever the perfectionist, Delaware coach Tina Martin barked her displeasure at Lucas for one particular errant shot and kept on her about it. Lucas just turned and told Martin to just give her the play.

"It just shows how much she's grown," Martin said. "She was moving on past that play, which shows maturity. Her toughness, her willingness to take a hit -- I mean, I would go to battle with her any time. Her athleticism really showed today. She took it right at the North Carolina guards and really stepped up her game to a whole new level. Which obviously we need at this level, with those type of athletes that North Carolina had.

"She was going by them, jumping over them, beating them to loose balls. She's just shown and grown so much."

Hatchell was perfunctorily gracious, to put it politely, in defeat. She loaded her congratulations to Delaware by wishing them luck "when they get on a neutral court" and said it was foul trouble, not the opposition and not the crowd, that proved the difference in the game. She left little doubt as to her opinion of the legitimacy of those fouls, never mind that it was the Tar Heels who gave the officials little choice but to start using their whistles or risk losing control of a game that was physical from the opening tip. Foul trouble did hurt North Carolina. Home-court advantage, an ungainly thing in the postseason, did help the Blue Hens.

But the difference in the game was the players. Not just Delle Donne, but players such as Lucas.

"Today, at times, she took the game over, just like Elena would take the game over," Martin said. "We needed that as a team, and she stepped up big time."

So did Danielle Parker, who finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds in 34 minutes of relentless energy against North Carolina's big front line. And Martin, who is far more than the coach who lucked into an All-American who scored her 3,000th career point Tuesday night, stepped up. She made the necessary adjustments at halftime, fixing the zone matchups that proved so costly in leaving Buckland alone in the first half.

So did the fans who gave the evening an identity all its own.

There is a sound that only comes from feet making contact with bleachers. Lots of feet, rising and falling in rhythm, producing something that literally rises from the ground and tumbles out into open space. That's the sound that washed over the Bob as the Blue Hens made their run in the second half. That sound itself is something to savor.

They didn't need those bleachers all that long ago, didn't even bother to pull them out for women's basketball games. They didn't need to worry about saving a seat for the vice president, either, not that there was a shortage.

They needed them Tuesday night. They could have filled a gym twice as big, maybe more. And it all started with what Delle Donne heard when the gym was empty, when she shot a ball for the first time after months away.

She is the reason it was possible. Everyone made it happen this night.

"It's unbelievable to see how much she's grown -- she was an 18-year-old girl and now she's a 23-year-old woman," Gene said before Delaware's first-round game. "It's just great to see that basketball has now been back in her life. It's awesome for me to see that smile on her face, with her team."

That smile crept across her face with 20 seconds still to play Tuesday night as she draped an arm around Carra, aware of the moment.

How much do you really love the game?

Anyone fortunate enough to experience Tuesday night can answer that.