A few months after finishing her high school career, Delle Donne took the usual rite of passage for a top-ranked prospect. In June of 2008, she waved goodbye to her hometown and enrolled in summer classes at UConn. However, after two days she decided to come back home and attend Delaware. Message boards were filled with criticisms of her desire. Former UConn standout Kara Wolters was quoted in The Connecticut Post saying, “She’s so good. What a waste. It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard. To have an opportunity like that to play, obviously, at the best college women’s program in the world and she threw it away.”
But most didn’t know about her loving relationship with her sister Lizzie, who has cerebral palsy. Delle Donne was homesick.
“I needed to be near my family and I realized family was the most important aspect, ahead of basketball, ahead of anything else,” says Delle Donne. “Transferring back and being at UD was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
She also addresses the rumors of basketball burnout.
“No, I wouldn’t say that at all,” says Delle Donne. “I love the training aspect of the sport and I love working hard. I love everything about it. It was just burn out of being pulled away from my family. I would definitely say the biggest thing is to kind of sit back and look at what’s most important to you.”
Still, the pressure and recruiting attention in high school had been overwhelming at times. At one point, Delle Donne flew to Arizona for a photo shoot, and then came right back for a game in Pennsylvania. Noonan says that while she handled it well, she never felt comfortable.
“I went on a lot of her recruiting visits,” say Noonan. “The thing that I was kind of surprised with her about was the fact that when she would leave Tennessee, she would leave Connecticut, she would leave Notre Dame or she would leave Duke after a visit, I was always kind of waiting for her to say that’s it. That’s the place or I love that coach or I love that area. I just never got that sense. She just never seemed to have that place that she truly fell in love with.”
During her first year at UD, Delle Donne traded in boxing out and zone defenses for spiking and serves on the volleyball team. She was even named to the All-CAA Rookie Team. But her basketball jones wasn’t going to up and leave. Delle Donne still had a burning passion for the game, and after the volleyball season, she reached out to head coach Tina Martin to talk about the possibility of a basketball comeback. She just needed time and space to get the feeling of the game back. Martin provided that with access to the gym late at night away from prying eyes.
For those few months in the spring, Delle Donne went through each dribble, each jumper and each drill in the shadows. Her future teammates didn’t even know about her late-night sessions. Neither did the UD community. Delle Donne had to come face to face with the game she had left behind, the expectations and yes, the pressure.
But this time felt different. Delle Donne would be home playing the game she loves in front of the people she loves. It was time. For the 2009 season, Delle Donne would do the once unimaginable as the top prep player: suit up in the Delaware blue and gold. She didn’t skip a beat in her first season on the collegiate hardwood, earning the school’s first All-American nod. Then in the following season, Delle Donne put up 25.3 points and 7.8 boards a night.
Some of Delle Donne’s most explosive performances this year included a 40-point, 15-rebound effort against George Mason in January. She eclipsed 2,000 points for her career in a February tilt at Hofstra, producing a season-high 42 points to go along with 14 boards and six blocks.
Delle Donne showed off her clutch gene three days later at Drexel, nailing a leaning jumper with two seconds left in the Hens’ 40-39 victory. Her 12 points in the game earned her the title of Delaware’s all-time leading scorer for both the men’s and women’s programs.