NEWARK – The Delaware Blue Hens had a big lead and cruised past an overmatched opponent, but their coach wasn’t happy with the effort she saw in the second half. So, Tina Martin was primed to rip into her team for the lollygagging that allowed William & Mary to make a late run and outscore the Hens after halftime.
Then, to her surprise, Elena Delle Donne asked if she could speak to her teammates first. And even though Delle Donne didn’t speak with the fire and brimstone that Martin later delivered, her message got through.
Actually, there were two messages delivered on Saturday and the second message — unspoken, but understood – was even more important than the first: Elena Delle Donne isn’t just the best player on the team; she’s also the leader of the team.
That’s not a role that came easily to her. Delle Donne has always been a player who led by her actions, not her words. But that has changed, because she has changed. Delle Donne is older and wiser and more self-assured.
“Her teammates really respect her as well as like her,’’ Martin said. “They understand that when Elena says something, it’s from the heart. She got their attention, believe me.”
Of course, it’s Delle Donne’s scoring that has propelled Delaware into the Top 25 in the nation – on Monday they were ranked No. 22 after entering the poll at No. 25 the week before. And Delle Donne is leading the nation in scoring, averaging 29 points per game after scoring 28 points in just 19 minutes against Yale on Monday night.
But now she’s added another dimension to her game – leadership – and even though that doesn’t show up in the scorebook, it will be a key component of Delaware’s run at the CAA championship and its first berth in the NCAA tournament since 2007.
“It’s a position I’ve grown into,’’ Delle Donne said. “I used to let Coach Martin do all the talking, but sometimes it’s nice to hear a different voice. And they’ve really been following my leadership this season.”
That change in approach really took root this summer, when Delle Donne led the U.S. to the Gold Medal in the World University Games. She led the team in scoring and rebounding, but she also observed and listened to more experienced players like Skylar Diggins of Notre Dame and Nnemkadi Ogwumike of Stanford.
“They are two phenomenal leaders and I was able to learn a lot by watching them,’’ she said. “They’re incredible players, but I was even more impressed with their leadership skills. I was able to watch and learn and see how they talked to players and take some of that back here.
“Coach Martin has been a big part of that because she’s really encouraged me to take on more of a leadership role. I always tried to lead by example, by giving 100 percent in workouts and by being the first one in line to run sprints, things like that. But the vocal part is huge, too, and that’s something I’ve learned this year.”
She’s also learned to love the game again. Delle Donne is playing with energy and enthusiasm and basketball is once again fun to play. In her well-publicized hiatus from basketball – she left national powerhouse Connecticut and played volleyball for the Hens for a season – Delle Donne said she simply got tired of the game and all the hoopla that came with being one of the best players in the country.
“She’s got that love of the game back,’’ Martin said. “You can’t be your best at anything if you don’t love what you’re doing and she has that joy of playing basketball again. And that has spread to the entire team. They just love practicing and playing together and Elena’s leadership is a big reason for that.”
It also helps that for the first time in a long time, Delle Donne is completely healthy. Nagging injuries dogged her during her first season and then last year she was blindsided by Lyme’s disease, which forced her to miss 12 games and to play below her incredibly high standard in others.
Now she feels great and she’s playing great and she’s even speaking without having been spoken to first. And that combination has propelled Delaware to the first Top 25 ranking in school history.
Delaware would have a pretty good team without her. The Blue Hens have some terrific athletes and a couple of good shooters and they would be competitive in the CAA regardless. But with Delle Donne, the Hens are one of the top teams in the country, not just the conference.
How important is Delle Donne to the Blue Hens? Well, when she’s in the lineup Delaware is 42-14 and when she’s not in the lineup UD is just 3-12.
And consider the Hens’ last game, a 77-45 blowout of Yale on Monday night. Delle Donne scored her team’s first 11 points and 16 of their first 22 and when she came out of the game with 12:42 left in the first half, the Hens led 22-7.
With Delle Donne on the bench, Yale outscored Delaware 5-4 over the next 3:14, cutting the lead to 26-12. Delle Donne came back into the game and scored five quick points as Delaware went on a 12-2 run. By that time, Delle Donne had scored 21 points and she sat out the final 4:53, when her team was outscored again 4-6 and went into the locker room at halftime leading 42-20.
In the first half, Delle Donne was 8-10 from the field and even though she had only taken 27 percent of her team’s shots, she had scored 50 percent of their points.
Delle Donne scored 11 points in the second half before taking a seat for good with 13:20 left to play and her team leading 56-30. She scored 28 points in about 18 minutes of playing time, and if you calculate that pace over 40 minutes, she would have scored around 60 points if she had played the entire game.
Of course, it won’t always be that easy. When the New Year rolls around the Blue Hens will jump into their CAA schedule and there will be no more Ivy League cupcakes to eat up.
But no matter which team they play, the Blue Hens’ fate will depend on the scoring and leadership of Elena Delle Donne. And now, as a junior with international experience, she’s ready for both challenges.