LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- President Obama has faith in the University of Delaware women’s basketball team as the Blue Hens head into the NCAA Tournament.
Now the Blue Hens want to prove him right.
Obama announced his NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament bracket this week in an ESPN Television interview and he picked the Blue Hens to survive through this weekend’s games at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and advance to the Elite Eight.
The No. 7 ranked Blue Hens, who earned the region’s No. 3 seed thanks to a 30-1 record and a current 20-game win streak, will face host and No. 14 seed UALR (20-12) Sunday night at 5:20 p.m. (ET) in their first round game at the Jack Stephens Center
The game will be televised live on both ESPNU and ESPN2 television. The game also can be viewed on-line at ESPN3.com and can be heard on the Blue Hen Radio Network on 94.7 WDSD and on the UD student station 91.3 WVUD.
No. 6 seed Nebraska (24-8) will face No. 11 Kansas (19-12) in the other first round game. The winners will meet on Tuesday night at 9:30 p.m. (ET) for the right to head to Des Moines, Iowa for the Sweet 16 next weekend.
Certainly, with the Blue Hens making just their third NCAA Tournament appearance and their first since 2007, the task will be a difficult one. The Hens have never won a post-season game in eight previous tries, including six Women’s NIT appearances.
But that doesn’t faze Delaware head coach Tina Martin and her talented group.
“We are chasing history,” said Martin, the 16th year head coach who earned Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year honors while also winning her 300th career game this season. “We are looking to get that first NCAA victory and we have to live in the moment. This is the best team I’ve ever coached. They are special and they get it. They all know their roles and really understand what it means to be a team.”
The Blue Hens arrived in Little Rock on Friday morning and practiced later in the afternoon. On Saturday, the team took part in a pre-tournament press conference followed by a full practice at the Stephens Center. If they didn’t realize it before, it really hit the team Saturday that their moment is now.
“I think it really is sinking,” said Delaware All-American guard/forward Elena Delle Donne, a National Player of the Year candidate who enters the tournament as the NCAA’s leading scorer at 27.5 points per game. “It was nice to have a few days off (after winning the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament title Sunday) to soak it all in, smile, concentrate on our schoolwork, and refocus. We are here now and we are going to enjoy it, but we have work to do and we are focused. We have a lot more to do.”
The Hens have already done plenty of work, earning their first-ever national Top 10 ranking, winning their first CAA Tournament title, and extending their winning streak to a school-record 20 games. Delaware has earned the No. 3 ranking, but don’t think for a second that they are taking the unranked Trojans of UALR lightly.
UALR is making its third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament under head coach Joe Foley thanks to winning the Sun Belt Tournament with an overtime win over Middle Tennessee in the title game. Middle Tennessee (26-6) earned an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The Trojans are led by Sun Belt Rookie of the Year Taylor Gault, who averages a team-high 16.3 points per game, and senior center Marian Kursh, who averages 12.3 points and a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game and is a veteran of two NCAA Tournaments, including a first round upset over Georgia Tech last season.
“When you get to the NCAA Tournament, anybody can beat anybody,” said Martin, who took her teams to NCAA Tournaments in 2003 and 2007 and lost to the host team each time (to North Carolina State in 2003 and to Michigan State in 2007). “These game are incredibly competitive and exciting and the higher seed doesn’t always win. This is a huge challenge for us. They will have a great crowd here and they are a physical team. We are going to have to step up to the challenge, play our best basketball, and hopefully advance just like every other team is trying to do. We are very concerned with the NCAA Tournament experience that Little Rock has and because they will be playing in front of their home crowd. That gives them an advantage. We just have to push our fears aside and know that we deserve to be here. We respect their program but we are here to play.”
Delle Donne, who earned CAA Player of the Year honors this year for the second time in three years and was the CAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, is certainly Delaware’s marquee player and one of the nation’s most versatile performers.
She has led the nation in scoring throughout the season - thanks to 11 games with 30 or more points - but also leads the Hens in rebounding (10.3 ppg), blocks (81), steals (38), free throw shooting (.895), and three-point field goal percentage (.407). The 6-5 Delle Donne is also second on the team in assists (74) and total three-pointers (46).
But the Hens are far more than just Delle Donne. Junior Lauren Carra, a two-time third team All-CAA performer, averages 10.3 points per game and leads the team with 48 three-pointers. Junior Danielle Parker averages 8.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game while sophomore Trumae Lucas, a first-year transfer from Florida, leads the team with 106 assists and averages 6.8 points per game. Lucas has NCAA Tournament experience, having advanced with Florida during the 2009-10 season.
Certainly the Blue Hens are talented and confident on how far they can go in this tournament, but they smiled when asked about President Obama’s lofty prediction.
“We were thrilled when we saw it,” said Delle Donne. “Not many people can say that the President spoke your name. It’s another great motivator for us.”
“We are blessed to have people around the world taking notice,” said Parker. “I think we are capable (of going to the Elite Eight) and we are anxious to show what we can do. Playing good defense and rebounding has been our game all year. We are going to continue to concentrate on those keys. We have been doing a good job all season long of taking each game as it comes and not focusing on future games.”