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From burnout to breakout

Elena Delle Donne held up a piece of the net after Delaware defeated Drexel in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament championship game. Delaware is seeking its first NCAA Tournament win ever on Sunday.
Elena Delle Donne held up a piece of the net after Delaware defeated Drexel in the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament championship game. Delaware is seeking its first NCAA Tournament win ever on Sunday. ASSOCIATED PRESS

By Adam Himmelsbach

New York Times News Service

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Late one night in February 2009, the Delaware women's basketball coach, Tina Martin, received a startling text message from Elena Delle Donne, one of the sport's most hyped prospects in years.

"Will you open the gym?"

Six months earlier, Delle Donne had left the University of Connecticut in the middle of the night — two days into her freshman year — and returned to her family's home in Wilmington, Del. She said publicly that she was burned out from basketball, but she knew she was mostly homesick.

Delle Donne transferred to Delaware and played volleyball for the Blue Hens during the fall, and the text message on that February night was the first outward sign that her passion for basketball still flickered.

Martin did not have time to consider the implications or the possibilities for seasons like this one, in which Delaware is 30-1 and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. At that moment, she just knew she had to hurry to the empty gym and unlock it before Delle Donne changed her mind.

"It was nice to touch a ball again and have that comfort back," Delle Donne said. "I'd missed it a lot."

Over the next three months, Delle Donne had frequent late-night basketball workouts that were shrouded in secrecy. Sometimes she waited in her car to make sure all the Delaware players had left the Bob Carpenter Center. She did not want to ignite rumors or invite pressure to decide her future.

"A custodian might have known she was in the gym," Martin said. "But that's it."

That spring, Delle Donne decided she would play basketball for Delaware during the 2009-10 season. Now a junior, she is the nation's leading scorer — her average of 27.5 points a game is more than three points higher than the next closest player — and she has improbably turned the Blue Hens into a national power.

Delaware, which has never won an NCAA Tournament game, will face No. 14-seeded Arkansas-Little Rock in a first-round game in Little Rock on Sunday.

Delle Donne, a contender for national player of the year, has captivated her university and her state unlike any women's basketball player has before.

"Elena is the highest-profile player we've had in our league since David Robinson played for Navy," said Tom Yeager, the Colonial Athletic Association commissioner. "And it goes beyond scoring points."

Delle Donne's athleticism and competitive nature were evident at an early age, her family said.

She removed the training wheels from her bicycle when she was 3 and she learned to juggle at 6. When she was in first grade, she would drain jump shots at halftime of her brother Gene's grammar school basketball games.

"She had perfect form," Gene Delle Donne said, "and the crowd paid more attention to her than to us."

As a third-grader, Delle Donne played on a recreation league team consisting of middle-school students, and when she reached eighth grade she received her first scholarship offer, from North Carolina.

Delle Donne blossomed into the nation's top recruit, 6-foot-5 with a forward's build and a guard's touch, and she felt obligated to join a basketball power like Connecticut. But her time with the Huskies was fleeting.

She missed her family too much, especially her older sister, Lizzie, who is blind and deaf and has autism and cerebral palsy. Long-distance communication between the sisters is impossible. When Delle Donne returned home, that barrier was removed.

Lizzie knows Elena by smell and touch. When she realizes her sister is nearby, her smile glows. Lizzie loves the feel of water and wind, so Elena often sits by a pool with her or drives her around the family's property in a golf cart.

"She's my angel and my motivation," Delle Donne said. "She's everything to me."

During Delle Donne's freshman season she was named the conference player of the year and a third-team All-American.

She entered last season with great expectations but missed 11 games after learning she had Lyme disease. Even after she returned, she said, she felt as if she were running through quicksand. Still, she averaged 25.3 points and helped the Blue Hens to a berth in the National Invitation Tournament.

"A lot of people get Lyme disease and just lay in bed," Gene Delle Donne said. "Elena played four games in four days at the conference tournament."

With Delle Donne's illness, various team injuries, and transfers who were not yet eligible, the Blue Hens were not at full strength. At a practice late last season, after Delle Donne's health had improved, Martin put her on a team with guards Trumae Lucas and Akeema Richards, who were sitting out after transferring from Florida and West Virginia.

"I got a glimpse of the future," Martin said. "And I was really, really excited."

Last Nov. 17, Delle Donne scored 40 points in the Blue Hens' win over No. 11 Penn State, and as the victories and momentum began to build, the community was enchanted.

In previous seasons, a set of movable bleachers on one side of the Carpenter Center was not rolled out for women's basketball games. This season, all the seating was used, average attendance rose to 3,900 from 2,100 and three games were sellouts. Vice President Joe Biden, a Delaware alumnus, attended the Blue Hens' game against Drexel on Jan. 22.

"It's been fun to see how the community has rallied around this team," Athletic Director Bernard Muir said. "There's been a following that we've never had before, so we're savoring it."

The junior guard Lauren Carra, a history education major, is an observer at Shue-Medill Middle School in Newark, Del. She said the school held a contest this year in which students could win Blue Hens tickets for finishing books, and a teacher told her she had never seen them read so much so quickly.

Enthusiasm on Delaware's campus is evident too. A weekly email is sent to students highlighting important events, and Carra said this is the first season the women's basketball team has been listed frequently. Several players said their professors have season tickets, and a large contingent of students and fans traveled to the conference tournament in Maryland.

"People used to just say, 'Oh, you play basketball?'" the junior forward Danielle Parker said. "Now it's like: 'Oh, you're No. 12. You're Danielle Parker.' It's pretty cool."

Outside Delaware, the Blue Hens are still a mostly unknown quantity. Two women's basketball analysts declined interview requests simply because they had not seen Delle Donne or Delaware play this season.

When Delle Donne sat for an interview in the lobby of the team hotel here, she was undisturbed and seemingly unnoticed by the stream of businesspeople and tourists.

"I guess we're still kind of in the shadows," she said.

But the anonymity may not last. The Blue Hens are ready for their turn in the spotlight this weekend, and none of the team's five leading scorers are seniors.

Delaware has been selected to host opening-weekend NCAA Tournament games next year. And for Delle Donne, that could offer the perfect mix. Amid the bright lights of the biggest event in women's basketball, she would still be surrounded by the comforts of home.

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