Delle Donne, teammates, lift Delaware to prominence

It hasn’t been an easy couple years on the national stage for the state of Delaware.

Vice President Joe Biden has often found himself on the receiving end of zingers from every end because of his propensity to talk more than a sugared-up kid at an amusement park. Dr. Earl Bradley has shown the world just what a real-life monster is, and a teen beauty queen has fallen from her lofty perch, subjecting herself to ridicule and cheap shots because of a poor decision.

It’s bad enough that we’re often thought of solely in terms of toll booths up north and a panacea for businesses to incorporate in, but a few isolated instances have certainly given us a collective black eye across these fruited plains.

But, just like those few things have caused some jokes and scorn throughout the nation, here’s hoping that the bright light shining from the University of Delaware women’s basketball team can lift us up back into a positive position for all to see.

On Wednesday night, the UD women hosted the vaunted team from the University of North Carolina in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament for the right to advance to the “Sweet 16,” a place the UD program has never found itself in to this point. Behind their unquestioned leader, Elena Delle Donne, and her 33 points, the scrappy Lady Blue Hens came out on top with a 78-69 victory.

For those unfamiliar with Delle Donne’s story, it is a good one, and one that I hope gets much more national play with the Lady Blue Hens’ recent accomplishments.

She was a national figure when she was playing basketball at Ursuline Academy. Considered by many not only to be the top women’s player in the country at that time, she was considered one of those “once-in-a-generation” players. She broke a national record by once converting 80 free throws in a row, and her scoring and passing skills were unique.

She was recruited to play basketball at perennial powerhouse Connecticut, but left the school before she ever played a game. At the time, whispers were that Delle Donne was homesick and couldn’t handle the rigors of playing at that level. Her response at the time was that she left for personal reasons, and many in her camp were suggesting she simply wanted to be closer to her sister, who reportedly suffers from cerebral palsy.

Either way, Delle Donne resurfaced again at UD, as she joined the volleyball team as a non-scholarship, walk-on athlete. Eventually, the lure of basketball brought her back on the court, and she played her final home game Wednesday night, notching her 3,000th career point and lifting the school to heights never seen before on the basketball court.

As the buzzer ended on UD’s biggest win, the team gathered near the middle of the court and waved to the fans as a gesture of thanks for their support. I’m certain for the fans in the arena, it was one last chance to offer their thanks for the memories this amazing group of young women have given them.

“It was a little sad, it was emotional, saying goodbye,” said Delle Donne, as quoted by an Associated Press article. “But to leave this way is absolutely incredible. I even said to the girls before the game, ‘We deserve to win our last game on this court.’ That’s how everybody played.”

Watching the game at home, I was alternating between the television screen and Twitter on my iPad. I was smiling at the support the team was receiving, reading Tweets from local news people and Selbyville’s Alyssa Murray, our Miss Delaware, and a student at UD.

There was pride in the school, and in the state, and that’s always a good thing. It was fun seeing people agonizing over the last couple minutes of the game, and I was tickled to see that the team would next be playing in Connecticut — a place with unique ties to Delle Donne.

“I enjoy the irony that I’m playing in the Sweet 16,” said Delle Donne, with a grin. “Obviously, I’ll be in Connecticut. That’s great. It’s a beautiful state and I’m excited to play there.”

No more than the state of Delaware is excited to have Delle Donne play for their school. And at a time when our little state has not been getting the best of publicity, it’s terrific to see a woman like Delle Donne carrying the torch.