Cast comes through for Delaware
The NCAA tournament bracket will be unveiled on ESPN at 7 p.m. ET Monday
UPPER MARLBORO, Md. -- Elena Delle Donne scored the final points in her final Colonial Athletic Association game.
But the coach who ended up face down on the court doing water angels Sunday afternoon had a point of her own about Delaware.
Delaware is more than a one-woman team, as coach Tina Martin preached all weekend. It is more than the greatest player the program will ever have. And the one woman who proved it Sunday was Trumae Lucas, whose drive to the basket and two subsequent free throws in the final minute gave the Blue Hens their final lead in a 59-56 win against Drexel that nearly went the other way.
Drexel took away Delle Donne on that penultimate possession. Delaware walked away with its second consecutive sweep of the conference regular-season and tournament titles and 42 consecutive wins against CAA opponents.
"Second time around is definitely a relief, trying to repeat what we did last year, stay undefeated in conference and then come back and win this conference," Delle Donne said. "It's a relief, and now we're thrilled to be able to really celebrate this one."
A little more than six minutes into Sunday's championship game, Delle Donne took a pass in transition from Kayla Miller and let her forward momentum carry her right into her shooting motion. The arc of the shot from a step beyond the line allowed ample time for anticipation to build in the throats of fans that looked and sounded like a home crowd for the Blue Hens, energy they released in one loud roar as the shot dropped through the net.
Delle Donne pumped a fist, let out a yell and chest-bumped Miller and teammate Danielle Parker when Drexel then called timeout, a rare show of such demonstrative emotion on her part. It capped a stretch of seven points in exactly two minutes for her and pushed Delaware's lead to eight points in what felt like it might become a rout.
Instead, as Drexel coach Denise Dillon noted after the game, it was the only time the Dragons gave Delle Donne an uncontested look. She finished with 28 points, moving into 11th place in NCAA history in the process, but she worked for all of them on a day when she hit 9 of 22 shots from the floor. That's the best most teams can hope to do against her.
"I'll say it all the time, when I watch tape on Delaware, I watch Elena Delle Donne first just because she's fun to watch," Dillon said before the final. "Then I'll go back and watch what do we need to do to contain her a little bit, what do we need to do against all their other players? But you can't help but watch her; she's the most skilled player I've seen in the game. She's so offensively sound, she's so intelligent on both ends of the floor."
The late-game heroics still in her future, Lucas played a part in the first half, too. With Drexel committing one, two and even three defenders to Delle Donne, Lucas hit two 3-pointers and scored eight points to help Delaware retain a lead that dwindled from 12 points midway through the half to just three points at the break.
Her shot isn't likely to land in an instructional video, all the more stark when paired with her teammate's textbook form, but the Blue Hens are dramatically more difficult to defend when Lucas and fellow seniors Lauren Carra and Miller make defenses pay for swarming Delle Donne.
The Blue Hens either are a carefully constructed power or a ragtag collection of players who found the perfect place. It just depends on how you look at it. Martin joked the players all made much better decisions the second time around, a nod to the fact that in addition to Delle Donne, Lucas, Miller and junior Akeema Richards all started their careers elsewhere.
For Lucas, it was Florida, where she started eight times in two seasons. She didn't pay Martin's program much mind when the coach sent the North Carolina native a recruiting letter, but she listened when the coach talked to her about playing not just with Delle Donne but the entire collection of characters.
"We take great pride in our roles," Lucas said after the semifinals. "I actually feel like, as a team, we feed off of it when somebody yells out 'one-player team' or whatever they might come up with. The fact that we're all capable of scoring and we're able to shut up whoever made that comment, it's a great feeling. We definitely feed off stuff like that. It doesn't bother any of us, and we definitely step up and play our role."
Just as she did with the game and the championship in the balance. Delaware again threatened to turn the game into a rout early in the second half, a 7-0 solo run from Delle Donne stretching the lead to 17 points with a little more than 14 minutes remaining.
And again, Drexel wouldn't go away. Taylor Wootton and Hollie Mershon earned their places on the all-tournament team in the remaining minutes alone, Wootton totaling 11 second-half points and Mershon eight points and seven assists in those minutes. Wootton's 3-pointer with 72 seconds to play put the Dragons ahead for the first time since the first basket of the game.
Drexel committed everything it had to denying Delle Donne the ball on the ensuing possession. That left the ball in the hands of Lucas at the top of the key with daylight on the left side of the lane. She drove, Drexel's Abby Redick tried to slide over to take the charge, and the whistle blew. Two shots for Lucas. An 80 percent free throw shooter, she calmly made both.
"You want to limit her touches," Dillon said of the attention paid Delle Donne. "Every timeout I said, 'How many charges have we taken?' That's something big on our defense, and we hadn't taken any. Abby Redick stepped in there, and that's a situation you put yourself in -- you either get lucky and get the call or it's a no-call, or unlucky and they go to the foul line for two shots. We were just a bit unlucky."
Some of what happened in Upper Marlboro should give Delaware pause as it looked ahead to hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. There isn't much shame in playing a close game against Drexel, which is living proof of how much difference a good coach can make when given three games a year against an opponent, but the Blue Hens did let a big lead slip away, in part because of shaky 3-point defense that plagued them all weekend. Drexel is a rival and a postseason-caliber team, albeit the WNIT, but it is almost surely not nearly as athletic as the team Delaware will need to beat next weekend to dream of the Sweet 16.
But none of that dampened the celebration Sunday, when players missed Martin with a water bucket on the court after the game, leading her to dive on the floor and make those water angels, and then poured water over her head at the postgame press conference. And those scenes are worth something, too, in evaluating what comes next. You find ways to win this time of year if you have the right people.
CAA commissioner Tom Yeager proved remarkably prophetic talking before the semifinals about the similarities between Delle Donne and another All-American he watched in the conference more than two decades ago, both in terms of the demeanor they affect on and off the court, and in what goes on around them.
"We had David Robinson in this league when I started," Yeager said. "A similar type thing, it becomes incumbent for the other players to elevate their game because, particularly when you get in the NCAA tournament, when [opponents] can start devoting two people -- and maybe three people -- on them and challenge the rest of you to win. If this is going to be a 60-point game, give Elena her 30, well, the other teammates better score 30 or you're not winning."
Delle Donne scored 28 of her team's 59 points Sunday. The two free throws Lucas hit gave her teammates 31 points.
And another net to cut down.