LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The University of Delaware's dream journey came to an abrupt end Tuesday night as the Blue Hen women's basketball squad fell to Kansas 70-64 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at UALR's Jack Stephens Arena.
Despite a six-point halftime lead and another heroic effort from All-American Elena Delle Donne (at right), the No. 7-ranked and third-seeded Hens (31-2) could not extend this dream season and lost out on a treasured trip the NCAA Sweet 16.
Delle Donne finished the night with a game-high 34 points but the Hens couldn't get more than eight from any other player and had their school-record 21-game win streak snapped.
"With this group, we will be back," said Delaware 16th-year head coach Tina Martin, who led her team to the NCAA Tournament for the third time. "This group is the best team that I've ever coached. Its disappointing, no doubt about that, but at the same time, it's satisfying to get that first win since we had never done that before.
The surprising 11th-seeded Jayhawks (21-12), who had entered the NCAA Tournament having lost six of its previous eight games, continued their surprising post-season run and will face Tennessee in the Sweet 16 next weekend in Des Moines, Iowa.
Kansas guard Angel Goodrich slashed and shot her way to a team-high 27 points, Aishah Sutherland added 12 points and 11 rebounds, and Chelsea Gardner contributed 10 points and seven rebounds to pace the Jayhawks. Goodrich's 27 points were the second highest total scored against the Blue Hens all season.
"Our six point loss is due to our defense," said Martin. "This team does get that we have to be a defensive-oriented type of group, but tonight, that's what let us down. What we didn't do on the defensive end was very uncharacteristic of us."
Delle Donne, who had knocked down 39 points in the NCAA first round 73-42 win over UALR Sunday night, surpassed the 30-point mark for the 12th time this season. The National Player of the Year candidate went 9 of 18 from the field field and 15 of 18 from the line for her 34 points and also pulled down 10 rebounds.
"Defense has been our thing all season, so when that failed us, things went wrong tonight," said Delle Donne, who finished a record-breaking season as the nation's leading scorer and surpassed the 900-point mark. "We felt great going into the half. I thought we played solid defense and then unfortunately, in that first four-minute segment, they came out and scored a quick six points and it all went downhill from there. The coaches told us how we needed to defend them, and we didn't do it."
Trumae Lucas (above left) added eight points for the Hens while Danielle Parker had four points and 10 rebounds and senior Jocelyn Bailey, closing out her UD career, added 10 rebounds off the bench.
The Blue Hens will return all five starters from this year's team when they open up the 2012-13 season next November.
A hard-fought first half featured seven lead changes until the Hens took command with an 11-2 run that gave them a 30-22 advantage with 4:10 remaining. Despite a rocky end to the half, Delaware held a 37-31 advantage at the break.
But Kansas, easily one of the most athletic teams the Hens had played all season, shot out of the gates in the second half behind the play of Goodrich.
The Jayhawks, who shot 50 percent outscored the Hens 22-6 over the first eight minutes of the stanza, grabbing their first lead since the first half at 45-43 on a three-pointer by Natalie Knight with 15:40 left. Knight's two three-pointers and another layup were part of 13-0 run that gave Kansas the advantage for good at 53-43 with 12:30 remaining.
But showing the heart that made them the team they were all season, the Blue Hens fought back.
Kayla Miller ignited the UD comeback as she scored on a driving layup and then dished an assist to Delle Donne to start a 14-6 rally that pulled the Hens to within 59-57 with 7:25 remaining. Delle Donne scored 12 straight points during the run, including three free throws that cut the lead to two.
Unfortunately, the Hens never got closer after that. Goodrich answered right away with a three-pointer and a layup, and after Delle Donne followed with a basket in the lane to stop the momentum, scored four more straight points to push the KU lead to 68-57 with 4:10 left.
Delaware's Lauren Carra answered with four points to stop the streak, but the Hens would never get closer than the final score as they fell for the first time since an 85-76 setback to then No. 5 Maryland back on Dec. 29.
Despite the loss, the Hens had to take consolation in creating what was one of the finest seasons by any team in any sport in University of Delaware athletics history.
Delaware earned its first ever national ranking, moving up to as high as No. 7 in the Associated Press poll, setting school records for wins in a season (31) and consecutive wins (21), and going through the Colonial Athletic Association season undefeated.
The Hens captured their first ever CAA title and followed with the first-ever NCAA Tournament victory for any UD basketball team.
"I'm looking forward to coaching this group again next year," said Martin. "lt's been a great ride for all of us because of the players involved. When you have players with great character, its fun to coach them."
"This really has been a dream season and a dream team," said Delle Donne. "The thing we're most disappointed about is it being over and especially saying goodbye to our seniors."
"I think this season has prepared us for next season," said Parker."It's given us an idea of the goals we want to accomplish for next year. We want to go further, and do the same thing, but do even more next year."
Chances are good that these Blue Hens will be right back here again next year.