Elena Delle Donne looms large for Tar Heels

I was sitting on press row before UNC’s first-round game with Albany on Sunday, scouting out potential second-round opponents. No. 6 Delaware eventually defeated No. 11-seed West Virginia 66-53, and will play UNC if the Tar Heels can get past Albany.

As the game unfolded, one player, a lanky-but-coordinated woman who towered above the rest, caught my eye.

“Who’s that?” I asked Ryan Ginn, a reporter with the Newark Post who was seated next to me.

Below is what he told me:

Elena Delle Donne was the nation’s top recruit out of high school. As a 6-foot-5 hybrid who can shoot from long range, post up, rebound and shot-block, she’s expected to be one of the first players selected in this year’s WNBA draft after Brittney Griner. She finished Sunday’s game with 33 points. Delaware scored 66 in its win against the Mountaineers.

UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell offered Delle Donne a scholarship to play for the Tar Heels when she was in seventh grade.

“She was about as big then as she is now,” Hatchell said in a press conference Saturday. “You don’t see a kid that age as skilled as she was. Her basketball intelligence was absolutely incredible. I got to vist with her dad and we offered her a scholarship before she left because we knew that she was going to be a great player.”

The Delaware native ended up choosing to play for Connecticut, at least initially. But homesickness and separation from her sister, who is autistic, kept her from enjoying herself. So Delle Donne came home to Delaware.

Burned out on basketball, she tried volleyball during her freshman season. But rumors began to circulate that she was shooting around again, and sure enough, she was on the roster the following year.

Since then, her progress has been the Blue Hens’ progress, and Delaware fans know it. Last year, she became her school’s first-ever All-American. This season, Delle Donne’s last, will likely also be Delaware’s last for a long while in the spotlight. She stayed on the court longer than her teammates to receive a standing ovation from the Blue Hen faithful after her performance Saturday.

“They’re like Cinderella at 11:50,” Ginn told me. “Once she leaves, Delaware’s back to no one knowing who they are. They’ll never get another player like her.”

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