NEW YORK – Elena Delle Donne isn’t completely her old self. Still, seeing her on the court gives her Delaware teammates a big lift.
The 6-foot-5 All-American missed the first part of the season while dealing with a recurrence of Lyme disease. She’s worked her way back and helped the Blue Hens to victories in their past four games, including the winning shot in the 60-59 overtime victory against St. John’s on Wednesday night.
“Having Elena back certainly helps our cause a lot,” Delaware head coach Tina Martin said.
Elena Delle Donne decided to leave UConn before playing a minute for the Huskies — a decision that sent shockwaves throughout women’s college basketball. She decided and take a step back from the game that she had played all her life. There were questions of burnout, but it really came down to Delle Donne’s closeness to her family.
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With her team trailing St. John’s by one point with 7 seconds left, Delle Donne caught the ball at the top of the key and drove to her left for a runner off the backboard.
“At that point on that last play, there’s nothing in my mind about fatigue or anything like that,” Delle Donne said. “The only thing is making the basket and winning the game. … This is probably the most emotional game we’ve had where it’s just so up and down. It was a lot of fun, though. I enjoyed it.”
She finished with 29 points and 16 rebounds, scoring 23 after halftime. She made only seven of 23 shots, but was a perfect 13-for-13 from the free-throw line, including two that put the game into overtime.
Delle Donne’s stamina was tested during the past week, when the Blue Hens played three games in five days. She appears to have made it through the stretch OK with mild fatigue, but only time will tell.
She has eight days to recover before Delaware (9-3) opens up Colonial Athletic Association play against George Mason on Jan. 10.
“I’m OK,” she said. “I’m a little tired, we all were. Coach should not schedule games like this again. I’ll get my rest, do what I have to do to stay healthy. See my doctors and be ready for the next game.”
It hasn’t been the season that Delle Donne or Martin envisioned. Delaware is coming off the best year in school history after a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament and a 31-2 mark. After a successful 2011-12 season, the Blue Hens were poised to take the next step behind Delle Donne. They were ranked 11th in the preseason Top 25 poll before she began to feel extreme fatigue at practice in October.
The return of the symptoms of Lyme disease kept Delle Donne out for the first three games. She returned against Providence, but was out for three more games.
Delle Donne returned in the much-anticipated home game against No. 9 Maryland before a spirited crowd of 5,000. While the Blue Hens couldn’t pull off the upset, she had 16 points and 16 rebounds. She’s slowly working off the rust.
“A month ago I wasn’t practicing, I wasn’t able to watch many practices because I was so tired,” Delle Donne said. “I’ll keep getting treatment and see how I respond after each game. I hope I’ve turned a corner with my health. I get tired a little sooner and I think it’s something that I’ll have to play my way into shape and continue to get healthy.”
It’s the third time Delle Donne has dealt with the bacterial disease since 2008. It came back her sophomore year and she missed 12 games that season. She’s been unable to maintain her playing weight and is still trying to gain the form that made her the high school player of the year.
Her reappearance on the court has drawn the interest of WNBA scouts. New Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault and Chicago Sky head coach Pokey Chatman attended the St. John’s game.
The Sky own the second pick in the WNBA draft. Brittney Griner of Baylor is expected to go first to Phoenix, while Delle Donne is potentially the No. 2 pick in April.
By then, Delle Donne hopes to get healthy and lead the Blue Hens to a second consecutive CAA crown and a trip back to the NCAA Tournament. If they qualify, the Delaware native would play in front of home fans because the school hosts the first two rounds.
For now, she’s taking it one day at a time, hoping she wakes up every morning feeling better.