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By: Matt Janus
Little Rock, AR- The University of Delaware women’s basketball team has an opportunity to make history today in Little Rock. No basketball team in school history (men’s or women’s) has ever won a national postseason tournament game. The Blue Hens are hoping to change that in a matter of mere hours.
In order for the Hens to rewrite the school’s history books they must get by a pesky UALR team on its home floor. With so much at stake, matchups are likely to determine each team’s fate. So let’s break this one down by looking at who has the edge in each critical area.
Delaware’s backcourt does not enjoy a standout star like UALR stud Taylor Gault. The Trojans’ leading scorer, at 16 points per game, has drawn rave reviews from almost everyone who’s seen her play at the collegiate level. Texas A&M coach Gary Blair called Gault one of the best players on the floor when she dropped 23 on the defending national champs in November. “They have a guard that was the freshman of the year,” said Delaware junior Lauren Carra. “She’s very similar to Tarik Hislop (JMU’s leading scorer) as far as she can go off the dribble and has a very good pull-up. They have a solid post game, but we need to focus on shutting down 24 (Gault).” Not unlike why Delaware landed Elena Delle Donne, Gault decided to stay at UALR out of desire to stay close to home. “There were quite a few out of state (schools that wanted Gault), but Taylor let it be known early in her recruiting that she wanted to stay close to home,” UALR head coach Joe Foley said. “She’s a mama’s girl, and she wanted mama to see her play, and you know us and UCA were probably the only two that had a chance.” Gault recorded 27 double-figure scoring games and eclipsed 20 points 10 times. It will actually be Carra’s job to slow her down this afternoon. The Hens’ leading backcourt scorer has also been one of their best on-ball defenders all season long. Carra’s shot has heated up in the season’s second half as she reached double figures in scoring in 14 of Delaware’s last 18 games, averaging 13 points per contest over that stretch. Akeema Richards will most likely take a few turns on Gault defensively as well. Richards may well be the most athletic player on the floor, and should be able to provide her typically tough slashes to the basket on the offensive end. Trumae Lucas has shot the ball better of late for the Hens, making 18 of 31 field goal attempts over the final five contests. She has also played a really solid point, raking up 48 assists compared to just 19 turnovers in Delaware’s final 11 games. Gault is playing out of position as UALR’s floor general, but after struggling with turnovers early in the season, she has learned how to better value the basketball. “She’d never played the point, and had to take that position over for us.” Foley said. “She just did a phenomenal job of going from eight or nine turnovers early in the year to not making any turnovers the other night against a great team (MTSU in Sun Belt title game). So, I think she has grown up a lot.” Janette Merriex is the only other true scoring threat from the Trojan guards. The junior is UALR’s best perimeter threat, shooting 33% from deep on the season. The Trojans have shot just 31% from three as a team. Delaware has been slightly more efficient, knocking down 33% of its outside looks.
Front Court—Significant Edge to Delaware
Anytime you start Delle Donne you’re going to have an edge in the front court over almost every team in the country. Delaware’s matchup with UALR is no exception. Delle Donne led the nation in scoring with 27.5 points per game. The 6-foot-5 junior is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. What will be interesting to watch today is UALR’s game plan to contain the Delaware native. “We’re not changing much,” said UALR coach Joe Foley. “We’re not going to stop her, we know that. No one is going to stop her. We’re going to try to do a few different things to help, but as far as changing our defensive philosophy, I’m too old. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. So we’re going to stick with what brought us here.” How much of that is pure gamesmanship from the veteran coach remains to be seen. If Foley does elect to truly play Delle Donne in a straight-man, odds are he will regret that choice rather quickly. Delle Donne will have a huge size advantage over any Trojan frontcourt foe and has feasted on the limited one-on-one opportunities she’s received this season. UALR’s most dangerous inside threat is Marian Kursh, who averages 12 points and eight boards per game. At only 6-0, Kursh is undersized, but she is strong. The Delaware coaching staff compares her game to that of Hofstra forward Shante Evans. Kursh lost her starting job for a four-game stretch in mid-February, but since that point has reemerged as a bulldog in the paint. The senior had 18 points and 16 rebounds in the Trojans’ Sunbelt championship game triumph over Middle Tennessee State. Britteni Williams is UALR’s tallest inside presence at 6-2 and is the Trojans’ second-leading rebounder at 6.5 per contest. The duo can be deadly with their high-low game, but that’s something Delaware’s personnel is well-suited to defend, Delaware should own the offensive glass as well, with the Trojans checking in at just plus-three on the year in rebounding margin. Delaware is plus-11 in that same category. Danielle Parker seems a likely candidate to post a double-double for the Hens.
Experience— Significant Edge to UALR
No Blue Hen has ever appeared in an NCAA tournament game. Meanwhile, four different Trojans have seen action in the tourney. Merriex, Kursh, Williams and Ford have combined for 45 points, 179 minutes and 10 games during their March Madness careers. Delaware will be severely outgunned when it comes to tournament experience, with UALR making its third consecutive NCAA appearance. The Trojans upset Georgia Tech as an 11-seed in 2010 before falling to Oklahoma in the second round, they then dropped a first-round encounter with Wisconsin-Green Bay last season. Ironically enough though, UALR’s most important player today will be just as green as any Blue Hen. Gault had not even enjoyed her high school prom yet when the Trojans were making their previous two NCAA tournament appearances. The freshman has been UALR’s best and most consistent offensive threat, but she will be making her NCAA tournament debut this afternoon. How she and all of the Delaware players handle their maiden March Madness matchup may determine the outcome. If it comes down to experience in the end though, that’s most assuredly bad news for the Hens.
Defense— Slight Edge to Delaware
UALR holds opponents to a paltry 56 points per game, but some of that can be attributed to its deliberate style of play. The Trojans are very patient offensively, which limits the number of possessions they have to play on the defensive end. Still it would be unfair to dismiss what Joe Foley’s team has accomplished on that side of the ball. UALR holds opponents to just 27% from three-point range, and 37% shooting from the field overall. It forces almost 17 turnovers per game and just over six steals per contest. The Trojans also block better than three shots per game. The Hens have been every bit as stingy on the defensive side, holding opponents to a meager 55 points per game while facing a much more taxing slate of competition. Thanks in large part to Delle Donne’s rim protection near the basket, and suffocating ball-pressure along the perimeter from Carra and Richards, Delaware has held opponents to 35% shooting from the field and 27% shooting from three. Delle Donne blocked almost three shots a night by herself on the season as the team combined for 121 rejections on the season. What gives Delaware the nod at this end is the ability to mix and match between zone and man defense depending on matchups. The Hens’ zone was shaky early in the season, but it has developed into a weapon down the stretch. That flexibility has bailed Delaware out of a couple sticky spots this season. It is also what makes them so difficult to score on.
Transition Game— Significant Edge to Delaware
The team Tina Martin described as the best she has ever coached at Delaware may also be the most athletic she has ever had in Newark. Delaware averages seven steals per game and is more than comfortable in the open floor. The Hens love to run when the opportunity is there, as evidenced in the CAA tournament when they outscored opponents 38-11 in fast-break points. UALR on the other hand managed just 10 fast-break points in three Sun Belt Tournament games.
Nine Trojans have started a game this season for Joe Foley’s team. Discounting senior night, only six Hens have made a start for Delaware. Five UD players started 30 games for Tina Martin’s team. That’s not to say Delaware’s bench can’t provide pop. Jocelyn Bailey and Kayla Miller are instant energy off the sidelines and both take charges like they were put on Earth to do so. Kelsey Buchanan is young, but her game has really developed to the point where she can exploit certain matchups. UALR was hurt by the loss of Nia Gregory and Megan Williams to season-ending knee injuries. Hannah Fohne beat out Kursh for a starting spot for a stretch during the year, which speaks volumes about what Foley thinks of her. The sophomore only averages four points and four boards per game, but she provides a toughness UALR cannot replace. She is also an efficient shooter at 42% from the field on the year, and averages almost a block per game. Kiera Clark knocks down exactly 50% of her field goal tries while averaging four points per contest.
Coaching— Slight Edge to Delaware
This is a heavyweight fight for sure. Both have made three Division I NCAA Tournament appearances and both transformed programs that had accomplished nothing before their arrivals, into annual mid-major powers. Foley got a tourney win with UALR two years ago. That’s something Martin can’t claim, but Tina gets the edge here for leading a mid-major program to a top-10 ranking and a top-three seed. She also deserves all kinds of credit for creating a sense of togetherness and family that is rarely found amongst teams anymore
The Pick-- Delaware 71, UALR 53
Delaware just seems to have too much for UALR to overcome. If Carra or Parker has a big game this one could get out of hand early. The one concern for Delaware is the Trojans’ propensity to jump out to big leads early. That kind of start could really cause trouble for UD in what will be their entire roster’s tournament debut as well as a true road game. Still, Delaware has been a quick-starting team all season long, and there does not seem to be any indication that this is a nervous bunch of Blue Hens. I think they make school history this afternoon.