BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- The University of Delaware’s historic women’s basketball journey came to a close Saturday afternoon, but it didn’t end without a valiant fight.
A season that included a school-record 32 wins, a second straight Colonial Athletic Association Tournament title, and the school’s first ever trip to the NCAA Sweet 16, came to an end as the No. 15 ranked Blue Hens fell to No. 7 Kentucky 69-62 in an NCAA Regional semifinal game at the Webster Bank Arena.
Down by 14 points at halftime, the Blue Hens (32-4) battled back to pull within a single basket with just under three minutes left to play, but they couldn’t pull off the comeback as Kentucky’s Katine Evans buried a big-three pointer with 2:21 left and the Wildcats knocked down four free throws the rest of the way for the victory.
The loss ended a historic season for the Blue Hens and one of the greatest careers by a student-athlete in NCAA history as Elena Delle Donne (at right) finished with 33 points for the third straight game and closed out her career as the fifth leading scorer in NCAA history with 3,039 points, passing the likes of Cheryl Miller, Chamique Holdsclaw, and Maya Moore.
Delle Donne, a Wilmington, Del. native, surpassed the 20-point mark for the 14th straight game and for the 25th time this season while also reaching the 30-point plateau for the 37th time in her illustrious career. She was a two-time Academic All-American of the Year, a three-time CAA Player of the Year, and a three-time All-American.
“We played an outstanding game against an outstanding team,”said Delaware head coach Tina Martin, who guided the team to its second straight NCAA Tournaments and its fourth all-time. “Yes, we made some mistakes in this ball game and yes, Kentucky is bigger, stronger and faster. But I couldn’t be more proud of the way our team played today, how they played all season, and the character of the kids we have on this team both on and off the court. I love this team with all my heart. What more could a coach as for?”
The loss snapped a streak of 27 straight wins by the Blue Hens that dated to mid-December when Delaware fell to Maryland. Kentucky, a perennial Southeastern Conference power, improved to 30-5 to extend its school record for wins and won for the seventh time in the last eight games. The Wildcats advance to the NCAA Regional final for the second straight year and will take on No. 3 ranked Connecticut Monday night.
Jennifer O’Neill led the Wildcats with 19 points, including four timely three-pointers, while A’dia Mathies added 16 points and nine rebounds, and Samarie Walker contributed eight points and 11 rebounds.
Trumae Lucas (at left) came off the bench to score 11 points for Delaware while fellow senior Lauren Carra (below right) contributed 10 points and 10 rebounds. Delle Donne also pulled nine rebounds while Danielle Parker scored six points and grabbed eight rebounds to become Delaware’s all-time leading rebounder with 1,064, surpassing the mark of 1,063 by Colleen McNamara in 1991-95.
The loss ended the career of seven Blue Hens seniors - Delle Donne, Parker, Carra, Lucas, Kayla Miller, Jaquetta May, and Chelsea Craig - who led Delaware to 104 victories, four 20-win seasons, two 30-win seasons, two CAA titles, and two NCAA Tournament berths.
“These seven seniors are model citizens,” said Martin. “They are everything you want in a student-athlete. I have tremendous pride right now.”
“This has been an incredible journey,” said Delle Donne, who is a finalist for virtually every post-season national Player of the Year award. “I’ve met amazing teammates, great coaches, and friends who I will have for the rest of my life. We have made a lot of history for Delaware and made our fans really proud. Obviously we didn’t get the win, but I’m just proud of everyone.”
That pride is why Delaware never gave up despite the 41-27 deficit at the break. The Hens had shown throughout the tournament not to count them out at halftime. In Delaware’s first two NCAA Tournament games, the Hens rebounded from a seven-point halftime deficit to West Virginia and an eight-point disadvantage to No. 13 North Carolina to post victories at the Bob Carpenter Center.
Kentucky dominated on the boards in the first half, pulling down 13 off the offensive glass and holding a 24-11 advantage at the break. But that all changed in the second half as the Hens outrebounded the athletic Wildcats 29-11 and ended the game with a 40-35 edge. However, the Hens were hurt by 19 turnovers - their highest total since early January - and 21 of 53 shooting (.396) from the field. Delaware did drain 19 of 20 free throw attempts to remain in contention.
The Hens came out strong in the second half, outscoring Kentucky 6-2 over the first three minutes and later using an 8-2 run to pull to within 50-45 with 11:53 left to play on a Delle Donne layup.
Kentucky recovered but Delaware was able to keep in the lead in single digits until a 5-0 run by the Wildcats, highlighted by a left-handed hook in the lane by Stallworth, upped the margin to 62-52 with five minutes left.
Delaware refused to back down and charged back, scoring four consecutive baskets, including two by Lucas, to pull to within 62-60 with 2:50 left on a Delle Donne jumper. But that was as close as Delaware would get the rest of the day as Evans drained a three-pointer from the top of the key for a five-point UK lead.
The Hens missed out on an opportunity when May couldn’t convert two follow-up shots under the basket after Parker missed a jumper and Lucas later misfired on a jumper in the lane with under a minute left. Kentucky then sealed the victory as Mathies hit two free throws with 44 seconds left and O’Neill added two more from the stripe with 24 ticks remaining.
Delle Donne carried the Hens early in the game as she scored 13 straight points at one stretch to pull Delaware to within 17-15 at the midway point of the opening stanza. But the Wildcats surged from there as they scored 10 straight points capped by a three-pointer by Bria Goss with 6:50 left to go up 27-15.
Carra buried a three-pointer late in the half to pull the Hens to within 38-27, but O’Neill answered with a three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to send Kentucky into intermission up 41-27.