UPPER MARLBORO, Md. – This dream season for the University of Delaware women's basketball squad reached new heights Sunday afternoon at The Show Place Arena as the No. 7 ranked Blue Hens used a dominating defensive effort to defeat Drexel 59-43 and capture its first-ever Colonial Athletic Association Tournament title.
Backed once again by the skills of All-American Elena Delle Donne and a punishing defense that held the Dragons without a field goal for nearly 10 minutes in the second half, Delaware cruised to its 20th straight victory and won its first CAA Tournament title since joining the league in 2001-02.
"I am really, really proud of this team," said head coach Tina Martin, who the CAA Coach of the Year who will lead her team to a post-season national tournament for the ninth time in her 16 seasons at the helm. “To be 21-0 through our conference is a huge accomplishment. Not many people can say that in our league. We’ve been on a mission, and today we can say we completed stage two. Now we are going to move on to the NCAA’s and try to win a game, which is something we haven’t done yet.
"Overall, it was a total team effort," continued Martin (at left). "Everyone pitched in and did their role, so that’s what I thought was the turning point in today’s game. You don’t go 21-0 and win the conference tournament unless you are a team.”
Delle Donne, the Tournament Most Outstanding Player, scored a game-high 27 points and pulled 10 rebounds while fellow All-Tournament award recipients Lauren Carra (14 points) and Akeema Richards (game-high 11 rebounds) aided the cause.
The Hens, who continued to build on their school-record for wins in a season, improved to 30-1 on the season. Next up for the Blue Hens is a ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The 64-team field will be announced Monday night on ESPN TV with the Hens expected to receive either a No. 3 or No. 4 seed.
The title was the fifth in school history for the Hens, who won East Coast Conference titles in 1989, 1990, and 1991 and the America East crown in 2001. Delaware will be headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in school history and for the first time since the 2007 campaign.
"It's amazing and we are all just so excited," said Delle Donne (at right), a national Player of the Year candidate and the nation's leading scorer at 27.6 points per game. "After leaving the court with an awful taste in our mouths last year, it's everything we’ve been working for and its nice to share it with such a close knit team. We knew we were not leaving without a championship."
The Hens, who had dropped previous CAA Tournament title games in 2003, 2005, and 2011, got the job this time and left little doubt, much to the delight of the partisan Delaware crowd that made the two-hour trip south throughout the weekend to cheer on their team.
Delaware took the lead for good in the final minutes of the first half and more than doubled up Drexel in the second half, outscoring the Dragons 33-15. The Hens held Drexel (18-13) to just 29.8 percent shooting from the field for the game (14 of 47) with the Dragons converting just 7 of 23 second-half shots.
The Hens also held a commanding 43-23 rebounding advantage and knocked down 13 of 16 free throws, including 10 of 12 in the final nine minutes of play to keep Drexel at bay. Drexel's 43 points was the second lowest total ever in a CAA Tournament championship game, just four more than Richmond scored in a 54-39 setback to East Carolina in the first CAA Tournament title game in 1984.
Hollie Mershon led the No. 3 seed Dragons with 16 points while All-Tournament pick Kamile Nacickaite chipped in with 11 points.
After using an 8-2 run to end the first half and take a 20-16 halftime lead, Delaware then outscored the Dragons 9-2 over the first four minutes of the second half to take a 32-20 lead.
After Mershon nailed a three-pointer with 13:27 left to play, the Dragons would not convert another field goal until the 3:39 mark when Taylor Wootton knocked down a three-pointer.
That basked ended a drought of 9:48 without a field goal for Drexel and by that time the Hens had built a comfortable 53-34 lead.
The victory set off a wild celebration by the Blue Hens with hundreds of Delaware fans storming the court. Martin later used the public address system to thank the crowd for support during the season and to ask them for even more as the Hens look to capture their first NCAA Tournament victory next week.
"I knew we had a chance to come out here today and win a championship," said Carra (at left), a third-team All-CAA selection who averaged 11.3 points per game and connected on 7 of 17 three-pointers in the three tournament games. "The team showed up focused and ready to go today and we gave it all we had and won it all. Right now, I just feel so happy and elated. This is a dream come true for all of us and I couldn't be happier to share it with this team."
Delaware, which went through the regular season with a perfect 18-0 record, got the job done in the tournament with its signature suffocating defense. The Hens defeated No. 8 seed Old Dominion 74-54 in the quarterfinals and No. 5 seed UNCS 66-39 in Saturday's semifinals.
Delaware was dominant throughout the tournament, holding its three opponents to 48 of 163 shooting from the field (29.4 percent), outrebounding them 128-82, and holding them to an average of 45.3 points per game.
Delaware took a slim 20-16 lead at the break thanks to an 8-2 run over the final nine minutes of play. Drexel had taken its first lead of the game at 11-10 on a three-pointer by Nacickaite with 12:00 left and on another three by Fiona Flanagan with under 10 minutes remaining to put the Dragons up 14-12.
But Delaware followed with a 6-0 run as Danielle Parker hit a jumper, Delle Donne followed up a shot in the late, and Parker scored off a fastbreak after a nice feed from Richards for an 18-14 lead. A jumper by Nacickaite ended the Hen string, but Delaware went up by four at the break on a layup by Delle Donne with 44 seconds left.
The hard-fought, closely contested first half certainly was no surprise. When the teams met earlier this year, both games featured tough defense and very little offense in the opening 20 minutes of play.
Delaware led 24-20 at the half in its 60-49 victory on Jan. 22 in Newark and took a 20-11 advantage at the break on the way to a 40-39 win in Philadelphia on Feb. 19.
Hen Scratchings: Delaware also defeated Drexel to win the East Coast Conference Tournament title in 1990 when both were members of that now defunct league...Drexel captured its only CAA title in 2009...the championship game was the first in CAA history to not feature at least one team from Virginia...Delaware becomes the first CAA team to win 30 games in a season since Old Dominion went 34-2 in 1996-97...all five Delaware starters are underclassmen.
Be sure to click here for all Delaware Women’s Basketball postseason coverage, including information on the exclusive Women’s Basketball Season Ticket Holder NCAA Selection Show Gathering presented by First State Orthopaedics on Monday, 3/12. Check back for further details following the CAA Championship on Sunday afternoon.