NEWARK, Del. (AP) — The success Elena Delle Donne has experienced at Delaware isn't a surprise to North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell.
Delle Donne had just finished 7th grade when she attended a basketball camp run by Hatchell in Chapel Hill, where the youngster provided a glimpse of things to come.
"Well, she was about as big then as she is now," Hatchell recalled. "I watched her play and I was just like, 'Wow.' The thing that stood out was, not only was she a big girl for her age but her skill level was unbelievable. You don't see a kid that age as skilled as she was. And her basketball intelligence was absolutely incredible. I knew that this kid was just going to be something else."
Hatchell said she offered Delle Donne a scholarship to North Carolina on the spot. Delle Donne declined, and now the 6-foot-5 senior is poised to go up against the Tar Heels on Tuesday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
After a brilliant high school career in Delaware, Delle Donne accepted a scholarship to Connecticut. She promptly left after a bout of homesickness and resumed her basketball career one year later at Delaware. She turned the Blue Hens into a Top 25 program, and the manner in which the state has embraced the sport of women's basketball is the main reason why Delaware was chosen to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Sunday's first-round doubleheader drew a sellout crowd, and another full house is expected for Delle Donne's final home game. Delaware (31-3), the sixth seed, will wear its blue road uniforms because North Carolina (29-6) is the No. 3 seed in the Bridgeport Region. Clearly, though, the Blue Hens will be treated by the crowd as the hometown favorite.
It's nothing the Tar Heels haven't experienced before.
"Have you ever been to a game at Duke?" Hatchell said. "We've had several games in environments like this. We know it will be hostile crowd. It's great for Delaware that their fans support them like this. I'm hoping after Elena graduates that they continue to do that because I asked myself, 'How many people did they have here before Elena was on the team?'"
Delaware coach Tina Martin isn't thinking about next year. At this point, her focus is on guiding the Blue Hens into the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history.
"When it's all said and done, hopefully the people of Delaware and this university will look back on this period fondly," Martin said. "There is happiness all over Delaware. We're just trying to enjoy the ride."
And if that run ends Tuesday night, Martin will accept it with very little remorse.
"I don't want anything to be taken away from this team and how much they've accomplished, what they've done and the history that they've made here at the University of Delaware because of one tournament game," she said. "If we beat North Carolina, yes, it would be huge for this program. But let's keep everything in perspective. It won't be the end of the world if we lose against North Carolina and it won't be like we won the national championship if we win against North Carolina.
The outcome will probably be decided by Delle Donne, who scored 33 points in a 66-53 first-round win over West Virginia, or North Carolina guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who notched a career-high 30 points Sunday in a 59-54 squeaker against Albany.
Ruffin-Pratt went 3 for 5 from beyond the arc compared to 4 for 29 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
North Carolina had to rally from a 28-23 halftime deficit, and the Blue Hens trailed 33-26 at halftime before Delle Donne scored 20 points over the final 20 minutes to ensure her team's 25th consecutive victory.
This will be the first time Hatchell has faced Delle Donne. Both teams were in the preseason NIT, but the Blue Hens bowed out with an early loss to Georgetown while playing without Delle Donne, who was sidelined with Lyme Disease.
"She's a great player and a great kid," Hatchell said. "I've watched her on video and seen her play some. She's great. She's a big body with great skills. She's a point guard in a 6-5 body."