LaSalle is out, and Temple's been eliminated. But there's still one school in the region that's still alive in March Madness. The University of Delaware women's basketball team takes on Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Saturday, and they’ll welcome all the bandwagon fans they can get.
It truly has been a historic run for the Blue Hens. They are the first team in UD history, men or women, to make it the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament. Thursday, several hundred fans turned out to see the team off to Connecticut where they’ll face number two seed Kentucky. The team secured a place in the history books with a dramatic, come from behind win over number three North Carolina on Tuesday night.
Just after the game, Hens head coach Tina Martin wasn’t shy about where that win stands in Delaware sports history. “This is without question, I would think, the greatest victory in Delaware history, in our sports history. It’s incredible for these young ladies.”
As the team basked in their victory, Martin encouraged them to drink in the moment, because they’re the first to experience it in the history of UD sports. “When you’re standing in a gym like that, and the crowd is going crazy, and you know you’re going to the Sweet 16 for the first time in history, it means everything.”
Delaware's best ever?
Martin is not alone in labeling this year’s tournament run the greatest ever. Long time sports writer for The (Wilmington) News Journal Kevin Tressolini agrees. “What they’re doing right now across the board in Delaware sports may be the greatest accomplishment of all time.”
While observing workers removing the hardwood floor from the Bob Carpenter Center after Tuesday's game, Tresolini wondered in his News Journal column on Thursday “is there a space big enough in the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame for that floor?”
”What they're doing right now, across the board in Delaware sports, maybe the greatest accomplishment of all time,” said Tresolini who has covered the Blue Hen women for the past eight years. He says even UD's National Championship wins in football don't compare because those wins were in a lower subdivision of competition. “To do what they've done to make the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women's basketball tournament, to beat the teams that they've beaten, to get there, it just may be the greatest accomplishment in Delaware sports history."
The team's tournament run also got a nod from Vice President Joe Biden, a Delaware alum who was at Tuesday's win over North Carolina. He devoted an episode of his new podcast series (dubbed 'Biden being Biden') on the White House website to the team's accomplishments:
“It was an amazing game to watch," Biden said. "They never, never gave up. They were losing throughout most of the game, and they came back to put it over the top, and it's because they play as such a team.”
Back to Connecticut
It has been team effort, led by superstar Elena Delle Donne. This trip to Connecticut is a fitting end to her senior season at UD. Out of high school Delle Donne enrolled at UConn, but only spent a few days on campus before deciding she was tired of basketball and home sick. She left Connecticut and returned home. After a brief sabbatical from the game, Delle Donne enrolled at UD, joining the volleyball team, before eventually making her way back to basketball.
But Coach Martin says all that is in the distant past, and it's not something the team or Delle Donne is focused on. “That was five years ago. You know, the whole Elena Delle Donne/UConn situation, we are way past it.”
As for Delle Donne, she says she’s ready to return to Connecticut. “It’s the same thing as any other game. We refocus and focus on the game plan and do whatever it takes.” She brushed away questions Tuesday about the irony of returning to the state where she almost started her college career. “I enjoy the irony that I’m playing in the Sweet 16. So, obviously I’ll be in Connecticut. That’s great, it’s a beautiful state, and I’m excited to play there.”
Adding to the potential for drama this weekend, if Delaware and Connecticut both win their next games, they’d face each other in the Elite 8.
But before the team can even think about that, they’ve got their toughest test of the year: a tip-off against Kentucky on Saturday.
This is without question, I would think, the greatest victory in Delaware history -- Hens coach Tina Martin