Danny Johnston, Associated Press
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Tina Martin's best recruiting pitch for Elena Delle Donne was to do no recruiting at all.
The Delaware coach's decision has paid off for the third-seeded Blue Hens (30-1), who open play in the NCAA tournament against Arkansas-Little Rock (20-12) on Sunday.
Delaware is making its third tournament appearance, all under Martin's leadership. No Blue Hens team, however, has arrived with this level of hype — primarily due to the presence of the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne.
The junior's story is a familiar one in women's college basketball circles.
The former national high school player of the year, Delle Donne originally signed with Connecticut before returning home to Delaware after two days. She originally claimed basketball burnout before realizing homesickness was the cause of her stress.
The underlying theme of that stress was simple: Recruiting.
Long a basketball prodigy, Delle Donne's ability in high school led to comparisons to LeBron James. It also led to a whirlwind of attention from the top basketball programs and coaches in the country, and Delle Donne limited her college choices to only the cream of the crop as a sophomore.
Schools like Tennessee, Duke and UConn were on that list.
Delle Donne's hometown Blue Hens were nowhere to be found.
"Obviously, if I could do it again, I would look at Delaware, but I didn't think about what meant the most to me," Delle Donne said. "When you're young, you don't really know what you want so you kind of follow what everyone thinks you should do.
"I thought I should go to a nationally ranked school and try to win national titles, but I was able to realize that wasn't the right thing for me."
After leaving the Huskies, Delle Donne enrolled at Delaware — appearing to leave basketball behind for good. She didn't let go of athletics entirely, playing volleyball and earning all-rookie honors in the Colonial Athletic Association as a freshman, but it wasn't until after the volleyball season ended that she felt the familiar itch for basketball.
Delle Donne eventually set up a meeting with Martin, who guided the Blue Hens to the NCAA tournament in 2001 and 2007. Martin had offered Delle Donne a scholarship as an eighth-grader but was well aware of Delaware's place in the national pecking order.
Martin was also aware that Delle Donne was on campus her freshman season, but she made it a point to avoid putting any pressure on her.
Even when the two finally met while Delle Donne was considering a return to basketball, Martin talked about family, not basketball. That led to a practice at Delaware for Delle Donne, though all Martin did was turn on the lights before heading home for dinner.
The stress-free approach was just what Delle Donne was looking for.
"A lot of people were like, 'Why didn't you recruit her,' Martin said. "She had already been recruited by all the top programs in the country. There was nothing that I could give to her that would make her decide to play basketball. She had to decide that in her own heart."
Delaware junior Danielle Parker was well aware of what it meant to the Blue Hens when Delle Donne decided to return to basketball. The two had played against each other during AAU action in high school, and Parker knew of Delle Donne's story and reasoning for leaving UConn.
They never talked about basketball that freshman season while Delle Donne was playing volleyball, but Parker remembers well her thoughts when she joined the basketball team.
"It was very positive, very uplifting," Miller said. "We were just happy that she was happy to want to come and play with us."
Delle Donne averaged 25.3 points per game as a freshman, scoring a career-high 54 points against James Madison. She then averaged 26.7 points last season, but the Blue Hens missed out on the NCAA tournament both seasons and settled for the WNIT.
Delaware's only loss this season was 85-76 at No. 5 Maryland on Dec. 29. Since then, the Blue Hens have won 20 in a row and Delle Donne has been better than ever — adding 10.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game.
More than anything, she's comfortable with where her career has taken her.
"This has been far more special because it's been my path," Delle Donne said. "It hasn't been a path that other people paved for me.
"The fact that I was able to come home, figure out what I wanted and then do it the way that I felt was right and meet phenomenal teammates and become a family together it means so much more to me now."
The Blue Hens, 0-2 in the NCAA tournament, face no easy task in their opening game against the Trojans, who are hosting the Little Rock regional. UALR is in the tournament for the third straight season after defeating Middle Tennessee to win the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
Delle Donne, for one, isn't looking past anyone.
"Obviously, if we don't win tomorrow, it's over," Delle Donne said. "I can tell you right now, we're not ready to be finished."
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