By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Brittney Griner stands as tall as her 6-foot, 8-inch frame in the history of college basketball, having dominated the sport for two years now, but West Virginia University will see how Elena Delle Donne of Delaware measures up against her today as the Mountaineers face the Blue Hens on their home court at 12:15 p.m. in the opening round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.
Delle Donne, a one-time Connecticut signee, stands 6-5 and averaged 25.3 points a game this season as part of perhaps the top overall game in the country.
“She is almost the same size as Brittney Griner but with guard skills, so we are just going to have to respect her as a player and we know she can score, so we are going to try and deny her the ball and not let her get as many touches and try and stop a lot of her offense that way,” said West Virginia junior guard and leading scorer Christal Caldwell.
At 13.2 points a game, Caldwell averaged just more than half the scoring that Delle Donne produced.
Coach Mike Carey, appearing in his seventh NCAA Tournament and in the ninth in school history, has spent a lot of time trying to device ways to neutralize Delle Donne, but he’s not about to reveal his strategy.
“We’re going to cheat some,” he said, indicating he’ll be doubling up on her whenever he can. “I don’t want to say where we’re cheating, but we’ve just got to hope a couple of them don’t have career nights and if they start having career nights then we’ll have to go out there and guard them and that leaves (Delle Donne) one-on-one a lot. Where we’ve tweaked it a couple of places hopefully we can overload on her a little bit.”
The problem is that she’s seen a lot of that and found ways to handle it, but WVU is a stronger defensive team than most of the opponents Delaware has faced.
“She is shooting almost 50 percent from the 3, which definitely makes her a threat out on the perimeter, but she also can take you off the dribble and step back at 6-5, and that’s hard to guard with another guard,” Carey noted. “If you play a big girl on you she takes you outside, and if you play a guard on her she takes them inside.”
WVU enters the game as a No. 11 seed following a 17-13 season that included a 9-9 league record, while Delaware was a No. 3 seed after going 30-3 to earn a No. 15 national ranking. The Blue Hens were unbeaten in Colonial Athletic Conference play, losing to Georgetown, Duquesne and No. 9 Maryland, the first two losses coming while Delle Donna was out suffered the effects of Lyme Disease and the third in her first game back after missing a month.
“We like to be underdogs,” Caldwell said. “No one expects us to win except us. We like to go in with a chip on our shoulder.”
Yaya Dunning, WVU’s 6-3 center, says that the disappointment of a regular season that was ruined for the Mountaineers by losing three players to ACL surgery and ended with a pair of difficult losses is behind them.
“I think we forgot about the season. This is the second season for us. It’s a chance to take care of business. We know it’s one and done,” she said.
That is meaningful for Dunning, a senior, who knows that her career ends with the next loss.
It probably doesn’t help any that the Mountaineers are not only away from home, but on Delaware’s home court and that a sellout crowd is expected, but that may not be as difficult a task as it seems. Two of Delaware’s three losses have come at home, and WVU has done well on the road.
“Hopefully we go there and continue to concentrate and do the things that we’ve done during the regular season on the road,” said Carey. “If we do that we’ll be OK.”
“I think this team plays very well with its back against the wall, and I think we do a good job of playing on the road,” Dunning said. “I think we are all excited about the challenge. It’s going to be a sold-out crowd. We know we are playing them on their home court, so we have to be focused and we just have to be steady and just play together.”
The game is being televised on ESPN2.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.