The Bob Carpenter Center drew its largest ever crowd for a women's basketball game Thursday night, as a sellout crowd had the privilege of seeing Elena Delle Donne play in her first basketball game in a month and just her second of the season.
However, the 5,089 Delaware Blue Hens fans in attendance at their home gym in Newark, Del. did not see the result they wanted: the program's first-ever victory over a top-10 team.
Instead, their opponent, the visiting No. 9/8 Maryland Terrapins, came away with a 69-53 victory in a game that the Terps mostly controlled, as Delaware only led for exactly one minute total but did go on a 9-0 run to cut their deficit to just three with 8:05 remaining.
Delle Donne, who has been battling Lyme disease on and off throughout her collegiate career - and is still struggling with it currently - led all scorers with 19 and put up a game-high 23 field goal attempts in the most important regular season game on Delaware's schedule. She had the ball in her hands more than anybody else for either side and played 34 minutes. Delaware fans have to take that as a good sign that she was pretty healthy.
However, by Delle Donne's standards it was a subpar performace, likely induced by the Lyme disease. After the game the superstar said she wished she had played better. She did not, however, fault her effort.
"I felt alright," Delle Donne said. "It was difficult obviously coming in against Maryland and playing against that physicality. But I'm just going to play my way back into it and keep trying my best."
Maryland deserves a lot of credit for the way they guarded Delle Donne. It was a team effort, but Alicia DeVaughn saw the most action against her. The Terps made Elena take a lot of difficult, contested shots, forcing her into a 30.4 percent shooting night and DeVaughn showed once again why she is Ms. Intangible.
"Defensively, we wanted to obviously - similar to last year - limit [Delle Donne's] touches, make it more difficult," Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said. "I thought Alicia did a tremendous job one-on-one with her."
Tianna Hawkins and Alyssa Thomas each had double-doubles for the Terps, their sixth and fifth of the season, respectively. Hawkins had 16 points and 16 boards and Thomas added 13 and 13. But perhaps the most pivotal aspect of the game was the contribution Maryland got from Katie Rutan off the bench.
Building off the momentum of her season-high 16-point performance at Towson, Rutan notched 13 points on 5 for 8 shooting and was 3 for 5 from beyond the arc. Those back-to-back double-digit scoring performances are two of only three for Katie on the season. If her recent trend of success continues, Maryland may have another legitimate scoring threat for opponents to worry about and not just your typical 3-point specialist who comes in to make one or two threes a game. Rutan averaged 8 points per game in two years at Xavier, before transferring to Maryland and sitting out all of last year.
Rutan's performance garnered the respect of a fellow three-point shooter, Blue Hen Lauren Carra, who played well with 16 points.
"We were going at the post players, we were helping in as much as we could, but we didn't want to leave [Rutan]," Carra siad. "And she had a hand in her face a couple times and she still hit."
"We know that Rutan's going to hit the three and we're not supposed to leave her and we lost her a couple times," added Delaware head coach Tina Martin. "And that's unfortunate because she did what she does best."
After a Delle Donne three capped the 9-0 run that made it a one possession game with 8:05 remaining, Rutan answered with a clutch three of her own to give the Terps a six-point cushion at 7:22 remaining. Delle Donne fought back with another score, cutting the lead to 55-51 on the next possession. Freshman Chloe Pavlech, who has replaced Brene Moseley as the Terps' starting point guard, then hit a three that would start a 12-0 run for Maryland and put the game away.
"The game is about runs and they had their run and we just had to stay poised and go on our run and just take the crowd out of it," Thomas said.
Delaware had their moments, but in the end Maryland's advantages in some key statistical categories were too much to overcome. The Terps, known for their rebounding, led in that category 44-35. They also had 17 second-chance points to Delaware's 6, more points in the paint (28-20) and more points off turnovers (14-8). And with 6 early points from Malina Howard to add to Rutan's total, Maryland's bench outscored Delaware's 19-3.
"I thought today's game was two teams that are obviously in very different places right now," Martin said. "We have an opportunity to get a lot better and I think that we will as time progresses."
At the post game press conference, Delle Donne was asked if she thought Delaware would have defeated Maryland if she was 100 percent, but Martin interjected before her star could answer.
"We're in the here and now," Martin said. "And right now, Maryland is the ninth-ranked team in the country. They're a very good basketball team. We're still trying to find our way. [Elena's] not 100 percent, we stay in the here and now and no we cannot beat Maryland, they just beat us on our home floor and they played better than we did and they rebounded the basketball."
Clearly Martin wants her team making no excuses.
But it is undeniable that they still have a lot riding on Delle Donne's ability to get healthy. Elena said she thought she was back for good when she returned for the other game she's played in this season and hopes this time that will actually be the case.
"After the last game, the Providence game, I expected to continue playing and then my body wouldn't respond," Delle Donne said. "So it's been a back-and-forth thing, but hopefully now I'll be able to go and I'll be able to keep responding and keep playing."
So in the end, Maryland improves to 11-0 against Delaware all-time and by a lot of people's definitions that's not a rivalry. But the excitement surrounding Elena Delle Donne, combined with the excitement surrounding Maryland, drew a record crowd and gave Thursday night's game a rivalry-like atmosphere. If Delle Donne permanently changes the culture of Delaware women's basketball, Terps vs. Blue Hens could be a legitimate rivalry in the future.
One thing is for sure and that is that these two programs have the utmost respect for one another.
Tina Martin believes Maryland, "has a chance to be a Final Four type of team, if those younger kids get more confident."
Likewise, Brenda Frese sees a bright future for Delaware if Delle Donne stays healthy.
Said Frese, "They're a top-25 team, no question, with her on the floor."