NEWARK, Del. – Tina Martin is no historian. That didn't stop the Delaware coach from weighing in on the significance of a victory that thrust the Blue Hens into the Sweet 16 for the first time.
"This is without question the greatest victory in Delaware sports history," Martin declared after the No. 6 Blue Hens pulled out a 78-69 victory over No. 3 North Carolina on Tuesday night before a packed house that included Vice President Joe Biden.
Elena Delle Donne scored 33 points in her final home game, and now the Blue Hens are headed to Connecticut to face Kentucky. If Delaware pulls off another upset, it could face UConn for the right to play in the Final Four.
Delle Donne initially accepted a scholarship to Connecticut before quickly leaving with a bad case of homesickness. She enrolled in Delaware, enjoyed a great career, and now she's headed back to the state where it all started.
"I enjoy the irony that I'm playing in the Sweet 16," Delle Donne said with a sheepish grin. "Obviously, I'll be in Connecticut. That's great. It's a beautiful state and I'm excited to play there."
Delle Donne surpassed the 3,000-point mark in a game she was absolutely intent on winning.
"I don't think I've wanted anything more than this win, and that's saying a lot," she said.
After the final buzzer, Delle Donne had mixed emotions as she and her teammates gathered in the middle of the court and waved to the 4,653 screaming fans.
"It was a little sad, it was emotional, saying goodbye," she said. "But to leave 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."
Biden was on hand to watch it happen, and afterward he visited the Delaware locker room to congratulate Martin and the players.
"He talked about the fact that he told President Obama to pencil us in (his bracket)," Martin said. "He gave everybody big hugs, gave everybody personal greetings, whispered some words of encouragement to our team and just said how very proud he is of our team."
Biden, it seems, couldn't stay in his seat as the game reached its exciting conclusion.
"The president of the University of Delaware said that the vice president kept standing up and blocking everybody's view," Martin said. "A few people wanted to say, 'Mr. Vice President, please sit down,' but I don't think the vice president would have sat down. He's been one of our biggest fans. We certainly are honored and humbled he came to see us tonight."
Waltiea Rolle scored 23 points for the Tar Heels, but the 6-foot-6 senior was in foul trouble for much of the second half and finally picked up her fifth with 4:08 left.
North Carolina point guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who scored a career-high 30 points against Albany in the tournament opener, played the final 11:55 with four fouls and finished with four points on 1-for-13 shooting.
The Tar Heels were called for 24 fouls compared to 13 for the Blue Hens, a discrepancy that did not escape coach Sylvia Hatchell's notice.
"I wish Delaware good luck when they get on a neutral court," she said.
When asked to comment on having her two stars in foul trouble and the 24 whistles against the Tar Heels, Hatchell said, "That hasn't been a problem all year until now. With Pratt and Waltiea both out, that was the difference in the game. But I told the girls in the locker room, 'This is a great lesson. Life isn't always fair.'"
Delle Donne missed 18 of 28 field goal tries, but the 6-5 senior went 11 for 13 at the line and now has 3,006 points during a sensational career in her home state.
Trumae Lucas scored 20 for the Blue Hens and Danielle Parker contributed 14 points and 13 rebounds.
Delaware trailed 48-39 when Rolle picked up her third foul with 16:39 remaining. The Tar Heels slowed down their offense to kill time while their center was on the bench, and she returned 2 minutes later, but was whistled for her fourth foul with 12:47 left.
To make matters worse, Ruffin-Pratt got her fourth foul less than a minute later.
With its two leading scorers on the bench, North Carolina came apart. Delle Donne made a basket, Parker scored on a drive and Lucas sank two straight layups to put the Blue Hens up 52-51, their first lead since 30-29.
Xylina McDaniel then scored on a drive for the Tar Heels, their first basket in nearly six minutes, but Delle Donne reached the 3,000 mark with a follow of her own miss to put Delaware back in front.
It was 63-60 when Rolle fouled out, and Lucas subsequently made two foul shots for a 65-60 advantage.
Told of Hatchell's insinuation about the officiating, Martin said, "I don't see it the same way coach Hatchell does. We will agree to disagree on this one."