Elena Delle Donne has vaulted the Delaware basketball program to new heights.
The 6-foot-5 star led the Blue Hens to their first Top 25 ranking, entering The Associated Press poll Monday at No. 24. They will face Princeton on Thursday in their first game as a ranked team.
“It’s pretty neat we’re making history. Not just myself but my entire team,” she said. “It’s something we’ll be able to look back on forever.”
Delle Donne is a huge reason why the Blue Hens (4-0) are unbeaten and in the poll. They are 40-14 in her career when she’s in the lineup and 3-12 when she doesn’t play. She is leading the country in scoring averaging 30.2 points. The junior had 40 points in the school’s upset of then-No. 11 Penn State and had a 54-point game last season. She holds nine of the top 10 individual scoring games in school history.
“She is one of the top-five players in the country period,” Delaware coach Tina Martin said. “She has done so much for our program.”
In a recent win against Villanova, Delle Donne had a “quiet” 22 points as she was constantly being double- and triple-teamed. Yet still she managed to hit the big shots or find the open teammate to propel Delaware to the victory.
“She’s like Larry Bird,” Villanova coach Harry Perretta said. “She may not be the fastest kid, or jump the highest, but she can beat you in so many ways. She’s so smart as a player.”
Much was made when Delle Donne decided to transfer to Delaware before her freshman year after spending a few days over the summer at UConn. She never regretted her choice to come home to the state where she starred in high school so that she could be closer to her older sister, Lizzie, who is blind, deaf and has cerebral palsy.
“Anywhere else I don’t know if this would be happening. It makes me extremely happy being at the University of Delaware.”
Delle Donne could pass Cindy Johnson as the school’s all-time leading scorer by the New Year if she keeps up her current pace. She’d probably already have it if she hadn’t missed a dozen games last season because of Lyme disease.
She says she’s completely healthy now, and it shows.
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“I’m back and feel great. I worked really hard this summer with our strength and conditioning coach,” Delle Donne said. “He was able to transform my body and do a lot of things with me.”
Delle Donne spent part of her summer playing in the World University Games and helped the United States win a gold medal. That team featured some of the best players in the country, including three members of the preseason All-America team with Skylar Diggins of Notre Dame, Shekinna Stricklen of Tennessee and Nnemkadi Ogwumike of Stanford.
Yet it was Delle Donne who led the team in scoring and rebounding.
“It’s nice to go and play with those types of players and see what I can do and bring to that team,” she said. “I was able to be a force for that squad. My versatility was something that was able help the team get some wins. It was an amazing experience. I had some awesome players surrounding me.”
She left a lasting impression on coach Bill Fennelly.
“She could play at any level and there are not enough good words to say about Elena,” he said. “She’s one of the most talented kids I’ve ever been around. She was a fun kid to coach. She did everything we asked of her. She was a great teammate. As long as she maintains her love for the game, she has a great future in USA Basketball. She has the potential to be on the Olympic team. She’s that good.”
Delle Donne has a choice to make after this season because she would be eligible for the WNBA as her original class will have graduated. She deflected the decision.
“I really haven’t thought about it,” she said. “I’m a junior, that’s what I say to everyone. I do feel like I’ll be at the University of Delaware next year. You never know what can happen but you think about this year and trying to enjoy it.”
Delle Donne hopes that the season ends with an NCAA tournament bid for the Blue Hens. It’s something the school hasn’t received since 2007.
“That would mean everything,” she said beaming. “It’s always been my dream to play in the NCAA tournament. I think it would be a lot of fun getting there. You never know what can happen when you get to that tournament. It would be an incredible thing for us.”