NEWARK, Del. — The University of Delaware’s basketball arena is affectionately referred to as “The Bob,” but on Wednesday night with the U.S. women’s national team on the floor, the place turned into “The Elena.”
U-S-A? E-D-D. Both are worshipped in these parts, about 30 minutes away from where Olympic newbie Elena Delle Donne grew up in Wilmington and site of the second exhibition for Team USA, which is bound for Rio next week.
The reigning WNBA MVP got the start along with 10 points in an 84-62 exhibition victory over France, the first of a three-game tournament, which concludes in New York on Sunday.
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The Americans will then travel to Houston before leaving Tuesday for Brazil, where they will be seeking a sixth consecutive gold medal.
But make no mistake, while Delle Donne’s teammates Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird and Tamika Catchings own the most Olympic hardware, her initials are pure gold.
In the first state in the union, the 6-foot-5 guard/forward whose handle rivals even the smoothest point guards in the game, is the first lady of basketball. She’s revered by a fan base appreciative that, despite initially signing with UConn, Delle Donne came home to play her college ball for an under-the-radar Blue Hens team, which she lifted to unprecedented heights.
“It’s great to have Elena in the house and it’s great for our fans,” said Tina Martin, who coached the Blue Hens to their first Sweet 16 in 2013, Delle Donne’s senior season.
There was a lot of blue to go along with the red and white amid the sellout crowd of 4,711 — some of it the darker color of Delle Donne’s Hens, some the lighter shade of her Chicago Sky.
“She was Elena for Halloween,” Charles Hammond said, pointing to 8-year-old daughter Payton, her arms wrapped tightly around his neck. “Command excellence” read the wristband from a Delle Donne camp Payton attended last winter.
“She learned about Lyme disease just because of her,” said her mother, Ryan, flocked by her other two daughters decked out in Elena gear, Team USA tattoos painted on their cheeks.
Delle Donne’s story, which includes her struggles with the tick-borne illness she was diagnosed with her sophomore season at Delaware, is well-documented. She remained in Storrs just 48 hours the summer prior to her freshman year, returning home and saying she was burned out. Instead she played volleyball for the Blue Hens, but gravitated back inside this same gym, where she graduated a three-time All-American.
“There’s been a lot of special nights on this court, but this is the biggest by far — this being a dream come true for me and for a lot of Delaware fans as well.”
Elena Delle Donne
Handed a microphone prior to tipoff on Wednesday, the awestruck Delle Donne said: “I am at a loss for words. Thanks you so much for coming. Let’s make sure we go crazy.”
The first roar for the player dubbed the best on the planet by Delaware Today magazine — she’s this month’s cover girl and that’s in addition to being featured in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue — erupted before her red Nikes touched the floor.
With 1 minute, 59 seconds remaining in the matinee exhibition between Canada and Australia, Delle Donne Associates flashed on the scoreboard. A 30-second Super Bowl spot is unlikely to pay more dividends for her father’s company, a commercial property development and management corporation.
At the final whistle, fans wiggled their way into position in the southwest corner of the arena where Team USA would enter.
Shawna McDougall, a 17-year-old from Gaithersburg, Maryland, staked out her spot early with two of her Lady Rebel teammates and got the reward she was looking for: a high-five from Delle Donne.
“It was by far the most emotional game I’ve played at The Bob,” Delle Donne said afterward. “There’s been a lot of special nights on this court, but this is the biggest by far — this being a dream come true for me and for a lot of Delaware fans as well.”
Taurasi, Bird, Maya Moore and Tina Charles also started for Geno Auriemma, who coached all of them at UConn and recruited Delle Donne.
Every Delle Donne basket — she nailed her first, a 3-pointer off an assist from Bird, with 4:15 left in the first quarter — brought fans to their feet. Every miss caused a groan.
“This was really nice, really special,” said Taurasi, who finished with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting. “This atmosphere, chanting USA. I’ll be honest, I haven’t really had that in my 14 years of playing.”
“I hate to put it one person’s shoulders, but one of our most unselfish players is Diana Taurasi. … When she starts taking shots, when she starts making shots, it’s like, ‘Whew! Now we’re good.'”
Team USA coach Geno Auriemma
A sloppy first half concluded with the United States leading by a point, but a more precise effort in the second included a 12-0 run behind Lindsay Whalen at point dishing to her WNBA teammates Sylvia Fowles and Seimone Augustus.
Charles’ 17 led Team USA, followed by Moore’s 13; Bird had eight assists and five points and did not turn over the ball in nearly 30 minutes. Brittney Griner’s lone block of the night received a Delle Donne-like ovation.
Auriemma continued to praise the effort that started on Monday night when Team USA outlasted a gritty U.S. Select team 88-84. Despite a roster decorated with scorers, he admitted he still looks to Taurasi to set the tone.
“I hate to put it on one person’s shoulders, but one of our most unselfish players is Diana Taurasi,” he said. “I said to her at halftime, ‘You need to get more shots,’ and she said, ‘No, I’m good.’ And I said, ‘I’m not.’ She’s so unselfish. When she starts taking shots, when she starts making shots, it’s like, ‘Whew! Now we’re good.'”
Delle Donne punctuated her night with a three-point play in the final minute, enough to keep The Bob buzzing until the final whistle. Next stop is Bridgeport, Connecticut, on Friday where the opponent is Canada.
On Sunday, Team USA will be in Madison Square Garden, and so will Delaware season-ticket holders Katherine Means and Rachel Mandes, both of whom plan to wear their Chicago Sky garb there.
“Yep, we’re off to New York City to eat in our favorite Italian restaurant and to see Elena,” Means said. “This crowd, tonight, it’s all in support of Team USA, but it’s Elena who’s the draw.”