NEWARK – No, Joe Biden didn’t rush the court at the end of Tuesday night’s game.
But nobody would have been surprised if he did.
In what will surely be remembered as one of the biggest nights in Delaware sports history, the sixth-seeded Blue Hens overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to stun third-seeded North Carolina, 78-69, in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament on Tuesday evening.
Playing before a raucous sellout Carpenter Center crowd that included Vice President Biden, Delaware (32-3) got 33 points from senior All-American Elena Delle Donne – including the 3,000th of her storied career – plus a career-high 20 points from senior guard Trumae Lucas as it earned the program’s first berth in the NCAA tourney’s Sweet 16.
Danielle Parker added 14 points and 13 rebounds for the Hens, who will take a 27-game winning streak with them to Bridgeport, Conn. where they will face second-seeded Kentucky in the regional semifinals on Saturday afternoon.
Tuesday night’s victory was an accomplishment in itself, though, regardless of what Delaware does next.
Delle Donne, who won four state titles here in high school on court, walked off the Carpenter Center floor for the last official time as a Delaware player with both arms raised above her head. In some ways, this was the crowning moment of her basketball career so far.
“It was emotional definitely saying goodbye to the fans and saying goodbye to the Bob Carpenter Center,” said Delle Donne. “But to leave it 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. I’m just so proud of my teammates for the fight they showed throughout the entire basketball game.”
“I’m usually a person who has many, many words,” said coach Tina Martin. “But I can’t even describe what our team just went through out there. This is without question, I would think, the greatest victory in our Delaware sports history. It’s incredible for these young ladies.
“I told you that they have hearts of lions. And they truly showed today that they have hearts of lions.
“I don’t think I’m going to sleep tonight,” Martin added later. “I am just going to go home tonight and scream at the top of my lungs, run around my house and be the happiest person. The entire state should be thrilled – I think they are. It’s just a wonderful moment. I’ll cherish this forever, as I’m sure our players will as well.”
Similar to what it did against West Virginia in the first round on Sunday, the Hens overcame an eight-point halftime deficit by outscoring the Tar Heels (29-7) by a 43-26 margin in the second half.
And it could have been even worse at halftime if it weren’t for some last-second heroics from Delle Donne.
North Carolina had an 11-point lead and the ball just before intermission. But the Heels turned it over with four seconds left and Delle Donne buried a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer.
The shot brought the crowd to its feet and pulled the Hens back within eight.
Delaware kept battling in the second half. The Hens took their first lead since the early going at 52-51 with 11:24 left on a drive by Lucas that just beat the shot clock.
The teams then traded the lead three times in the next few minutes. The Hens, though, went ahead for good on a Jaquetta May putback that made it 57-56 with 8:25 remaining.
After Delaware went up by as many as seven points, UNC twice got back within three points in the final minutes.
Perhaps the biggest Blue Hen basket down the stretch came with 1:27 left. With the shot clock winding down, Delle Donne fired a two-handed pass to May cutting to the basket and the senior quickly banked it home to give Delaware a 71-66 advantage.
From there, the Heels never got closer than four points as Delaware made 5-of-6 foul shots in the final 27.8 to seal the victory.
As the final seconds ticked off, the Hens celebrated at midcourt. A few minutes later, Martin grabbed the arena microphone.
After thanking the fans, Martin shouted to the crowd, ‘Let’s go to Bridgeport, baby.’
North Carolina shot just 30 percent in the second half (9-of-30). That included only 1-of-9 shooting from three-point range.
That last stat was huge because the Heels were 6-of-10 from beyond the arc in the first half. That included four straight threes from freshman guard Megan Buckland (career-high 17 points).
They also got a big game from 6-foot-6 freshman Waltiea Rolle, who collected 23 points, six rebounds and six blocked shots. But she played only 26 minutes before fouling out with 4:08 remaining.
UNC’s top player, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, finished with four fouls but did play 33 minutes. She shot 1-of-13 from the floor and netted only four points.
Delaware was called for only 13 fouls in the contest compared to 24 for the Heels. That led to some thinly-veiled complaining about the officiating from UNC coach Sylvia Hatchell after the game.
“It (foul trouble) hasn’t been a problem all year until now,” said Hatchell. “With Pratt and Waltiea both out, that was the difference in the game. I told the girls in the locker room, this is a great lesson. Life’s not always fair. You have to deal with what’s dealt to you, learn from it and move on.
“I wish Delaware good luck when they get on a neutral court,” she also said.
“I thought that Carolina came out very, very aggressive and tried to dictate a very aggressive basketball game,” said Martin. “You can let some things go but you certainly can’t let everything go. Being down there on the floor, I can’t imagine a more physical basketball game.
“There were some major fouls there and they should be called. And they were called. …. I don’t see it the same way as Coach Hatchell does. She’s a great coach, I respect her. But we’ll agree to disagree on this one.”
Of course, for Delaware fans who were glued to their seats – both in the Carpenter Center and at home watching on TV – will remember the moment, not the officiating.
No matter what happens next, the fact that the Hens pulled out an historic victory is what they’ll remember years from now. And, fittingly, their star, Delle Donne, was at the heart of it.
“I don’t think I wanted anything more than this win,” said Delle Donne. “And that’s saying a lot because I’m a competitor. This was an awesome, awesome game. I’m just thrilled with what happened.”
Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 741-8227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.