MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia has already faced the nation’s top women’s player in Baylor’s Brittney Griner. This Sunday, the Mountaineers will get an opportunity to go up against another great player in Delaware’s Elena Delle Donne in an NCAA tournament first-round game at Bob Carpenter Center in Newark, Del.
Delle Donne, a former UConn signee, is a three-time Colonial Athletic Conference player of the year who is averaging 25.3 points per game while shooting nearly 50 percent from 3.
She stands 6-feet-5 inches tall.
“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 Christal Caldwell.
Of course that’s easier said than done. Because Delle Donne is so big and so skilled, she causes unique matchup problems for any team she faces. If you put a smaller player on her she will post them up and if you use a bigger player to guard her she can take them outside and shoot 3s.
West Virginia coach Mike Carey said the Mountaineers will have to do a combination of things to try and slow her down.
“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.”
Carey knows Delle Donne is going to get her points, but what he is most concerned about is making sure her teammates don’t have career afternoons if the Mountaineers focus too much on her.
“We’re going to cheat some,” he said. “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.”
West Virginia (17-13) was one of the last teams to get into the NCAA tournament - primarily on the basis of a difficult Big 12 schedule that saw eight conference teams reach postseason play. The Mountaineers finished the regular season with a 9-9 league record that included impressive road wins at Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Kansas.
“Out of the 10 teams, seven went to the NCAAs and Kansas State made the WNIT and I saw where they won. That says a lot about the Big 12. The talent level in the Big 12 is unbelievable,” said Carey.
The Mountaineers will be facing a Delaware team that has won 30 of 33 games this year and is ranked 15th in the country. The Blue Hens ran the table in the Colonial Athletic Conference this season with their three losses coming outside of league play against Georgetown (a former WVU foe in the Big East), Duquesne and ninth-rated Maryland. Two of those three defeats also occurred on Delaware’s home floor.
However, this is easily West Virginia’s stiffest NCAA tournament first round game since playing at sixth-seeded Ohio State on its home floor back in 2004. For whatever reason, though, the Mountaineers seem to play better on the road than at home this season.
“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,” added senior Ayana Dunning. “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.”
Caldwell, a 5-9 guard, is West Virginia’s top scorer averaging 13.2 points per game. Dunning, a 6-3 center, is the only other starter averaging double figures at 10 points per game. Projected to join those two in the starting lineup are junior guard Taylor Palmer (9.8 ppg.), sophomore forward Averee Fields (8.0 ppg.) and sophomore guard Linda Stepney (2.8 ppg.).
The Mountaineers last played on March 9 in the Big 12 quarterfinals when they lost, 65-64, to Oklahoma after leading the Sooners by as many as 22 points early in the second half.
“After the Oklahoma game I told them there was a good chance we won’t be in the NCAA, so I think they realize this is a second chance,” Carey said. “The practices went well. I think they’re focused and I think they’re ready.”
This is West Virginia’s sixth NCAA tournament appearance under Carey and the ninth in school history.
Tipoff is 12:15 p.m. and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN2. MSN radio’s pregame coverage begins at noon with Travis Jones on the call.