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By: Matt Janus
Little Rock, AR- The University of Delaware women’s basketball team made history on Sunday in Little Rock. No basketball team in school history (men’s or women’s) had ever won a national postseason tournament game until Tina Martin’s squad routed UALR, 73-42. The Blue Hens are hoping to extend their school-record winning streak to 22 games by beating Kansas tonight at 9:40 p.m.
In order for the Hens to keep this storybook season alive, they will have to get by a team that proved itself in the nation’s toughest conference (Big 12) and features one of the best point guards in the country. 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.
Guards—Edge to Kansas
Kansas’ backcourt is anchored by Angel Goodrich, who leads the nation in assists with 7.5 per game. The junior has battled back from consecutive season-ending ACL injuries to be named to a Nancy Lieberman Award finalist. She is also a threat to score, as she dropped 20 on Nebraska to lead the Jayhawks to an upset. She finished the season with 24 double-digit scoring performances and has eclipsed 20 points five times. Her decision making is good, but she is prone to turnovers, with 113 of them on the year. The junior is also the best three-point shooter on Kansas’ roster at 38% on the year. Delaware junior Lauren Carra knows how important it is to stop Goodrich. “She's a great point guard,” Carra said. “She gets into the lane, she penetrates, she kicks and she can score the ball, so we just need to contain her, keep her out of the lane and keep her in front of us.” Elena Delle Donne said that’s the key thing to keep an eye on for the entire Jayhawk backcourt. “They have good guards who can get to the rim,” Delle Donne said. “We really have to concentrate on making sure we stay in front of them and cut off their angles to the basket.” Cece Night and Monica Engelman are two more quick bodies Delaware will have to watch along the perimeter. Carra is the key scoring guard for the Hens. She had 12 points and knocked down two-of-three perimeter shots in the opening-round rout of UALR. She has now notched double figures in 15 of Delaware’s last 19 games. Trumae Lucas had a tough shooting night against the Trojans, but did finish with five assists, two steals and no turnovers at the point. Akeema Richards continues to hit the glass hard. She pulled down seven rebounds against UALR, but had only one point. Delaware will probably need more offensive production from either Richards or Lucas to be successful tonight.
Frontcourt—Significant Edge to Delaware
Awe-inspiring does not begin to do justice to the performance turned in by Elena Delle Donne on Sunday afternoon. All the Delaware native did was drop 39 points in 30 minutes as she single-handedly out-scored the Hens’ first-round NCAA tournament opponent, UALR, by nine points at the time of her departure from the game. That being said, Kansas head coach Bonnie Henrickson is unlikely to give Delle Donne the same opportunities UALR did. “We’re not changing our defensive plan,” Trojan coach Joe Foley said about defending Delle Donne before Sunday’s game. “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..” That did not work out too well for Foley obviously as the old dog went home with his tail dragging between his legs. Henrickson is unlikely to play straight man without all kinds of help on Delle Donne, but at the same time the veteran head coach did acknowledge there is only so much scheming you can do with less than 48 hours to prepare. “We’ve got one day,” Henrickson said. “There’s some things I think we might be able to do, but we can’t reinvent the wheel over night. If I feel comfortable with a potential plan that’s great, but what matters is if they feel comfortable, and if they don’t feel comfortable we won’t do it.” So who will get the task of guarding Delle Donne? “Aishah (Sutherland) will have the matchup to begin with, but she can’t guard her for 40 minutes, I mean there’s no way,” Henrickson said. “We’re going to have to move some people around. She's too tough a matchup in how much the offense goes through her. We’re going to have some options with some other people taking some turns.” All the fours will get a chance at Delle Donne at some point defensively which is Sutherland, Bunny Williams and Tania Jackson. One player who will most certainly not take a turn on the nation’s leading scorer is Chelsea Gardner. “We’re going to try and keep Chelsea off of her because that’s a mismatch on the wrong end for us,” Henrickson said with a big smile on her face. The freshman may not be Kansas’ best defensive player, but she has developed offensively. Gardner had 15 points and 16 rebounds as she wore Nebraska out in the opening round. Kansas lost All-American Carolyn Davis for the season last month, and while it has been unable to duplicate her production (17 ppg and 60% shooting from the field), Gardner has come close to filling the void. As a team the Jayhawks are just plus-one on the year in rebounding margin per game. Delaware is plus-11 in that same category. That will be a key stat to keep an eye on, if Danielle Parker is getting offensive rebounds, the Hens should win this game by double digits.
Defense— Edge to Delaware
The Hens have been incredibly stingy on the defensive side, holding opponents to a meager 55 points per game. 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 year as the team combined for 121 rejections on the regular season. In the tourney opener against UALR, Delaware’s defense rose another notch, holding the Trojans to 42 points and 2-of-12 shooting from deep. Kansas meanwhile surrendered more than 60 points per game and allowed teams to shoot better than 45% from the field. The reason this isn’t a significant edge to the Hens is that Kansas faced a stiffer level of competition than Delaware and that it shutdown Nebraska on Sunday. Kansas held a good shooting group of Cornhuskers to a pathetic 1-for-19 performance from the perimeter. If the Jayhawks play that kind of defense again tonight things will get very interesting.
Transition Game— Slight 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. Kansas can run with Goodrich as well and the bottom line is neither team wants to turn this game into a track meet.
Depth— Edge to Delaware
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. In the post Sarah Acker and Kelsey Buchanan will each see time. Buchanan is young, but her game has really developed to the point where she can exploit certain matchups, while Acker will battle on the glass and can play good defense. Kansas only dresses nine players as injury and transfer has just decimated its bench. The Jayhawks did have all nine players see at least seven minutes of action in the win over Nebraska though, so they will mix and match bodies to keep people as fresh as possible.
Coaching— Slight Edge to Delaware
In a matchup of two friends who have known each other for over 20 years, Martin gets the edge for leading a mid-major program to a top-10 ranking and a top-three seed. The Hen head coach has taken Delaware to the tournament three times in 16 years, while this is Henrickson’s first NCAA trip in eight years with Kansas. Henrickson does get all kinds of credit for keeping Kansas afloat after the loss of Davis, whom the Jayhawks ran most of their offensive sets through.
The Pick-- Delaware 66, Kansas 54
Delaware will be tested tonight for sure. Kansas struggled down the stretch, losing nine of 12, but did beat a good Oklahoma team in Norman in the regular season finale and then got past an even better Nebraska team in the first round. That being said, Kansas does not have anyone as talented as Delle Donne, and the only player on the roster who is even close (Davis) was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Gardner is unlikely to duplicate her production from Sunday and as a result too much pressure will fall on the shoulders of Goodrich. Delle Donne should shoot plenty of free throws, the Hens should enjoy some offensive rebounds, and I think Danielle Parker is a double-double candidate. Add it all up and it seems like a double-digit win and a trip to the tourney’s second weekend for Delaware to me.