By Mel Greenberg
NEWARK, Del. – No. 18 Delaware escaped James Madison, the Blue Hens’ nearest pursuer in the Colonial Athletic Association, by the slimmest of margins 61-60 at the Blue Hens’ Bob Carpenter Center Sunday in a Pink Zone event before another sellout and all-time record crowd of 5,098.
The previous record of 5,089 was set back in December when Maryland visited.
Delaware (24-3, 15-0 CAA) has won 19 straight overall since the loss to Maryland and has a conference winning streak of 34 over the last three seasons, though that run was nearly shuttered by the Duchesses (18-9, 13-3).
Drexel, meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, handled William & Mary 62-47 at the Dragons’ Daskalakis Athletic Center to move back into a second-place tie with JMU and, if the regular season ended now, the No. 2 seed.
But there are three games to go before the CAA tournament next month at the Showplace Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md.
Delaware, however, clinched the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney for the second straight year, even though at the moment Drexel (19-7, 12-3) could catch the Blue Hens at the finish.
A sweep of Old Dominion, which is banned as a school from the men’s and women’s tourneys because of the departure for Conference-USA this summer, would break the tie because Drexel split with the Lady Monarchs, who were swept by the Blue Hens.
Elena Delle Donne, the nation’s leading scorer a year ago and No. 2 right now, was stymied in the first half but got 19 of her game-high 28 points the rest of the way including some key foul shots at the finish.
Another day was another record for the former nation’s top high school prospect out of nearby Wilmington who is now the all-time CAA career scorer. Delle Donne had a season-high six blocked shots to tie the CAA career mark of 255 set by William & Mary’s Tiffany Benson in 2006-10.
Delaware was chased all the way in this one but the game turned after a James Madison possession that lasted about two minutes down the stretch.
JMU’s Tarik Hislop hit a trey with 8 minutes, 29 seconds left to get the visitors within a bucket at 53-51.
Delle Donne turned the ball over, but Kirby Burkholder missed a layup followed by a missed three-point attempt by Delle Donne with 7:39 left.
The next stretch that was the marathon JMU possession saw coach Kenny Brooks’ team miss 10 shots but grab nine offensive rebounds until Delaware’s Danielle Parker finally grabbed one of her team-high 11 rebounds with 5:37 left.
Delle Donne’s two free throws with 4:35 left made it 55-51 but Hislop closed it again with jumper with 2:11 left.
Then Delle Donne’s sidekick Kayla Miller, dating back to their high school days near here at Wilmington’s Ursuline Academy, nailed a trey for a 58-53 lead with 1:45 left.
Delle Donne and Burkholder later exchanged a pair of foul shots to make it 60-55 with 46 seconds left.
Miller missed two foul shots and then Hislop’s trey put Delaware’s win streak back in jeopardy with JMU trailing 60-58.
Delle Donne made 1 of 2 foul shots but a turnover by Lauren Carra led to Precious Hall scoring inside just before time expired for the final score.
No Blue Hen, other than Delle Donne, scored in double figures while Hislop had 17 for JMU, Burkholder had 16 points and 14 rebounds, Toia Giggetts had 10 points and 12 rebounds, and Hall also had 10 points.
Other than getting the win, Delaware coach Tina Martin was unhappy with the play of her squad, especially this close to tournament time.
“The last three minutes I thought we did everything we could to give them the game,” Martin said. “Very frustrating to watch. JMU’s a quicker team and they are more athletic than we are. We talked all week about putting a body on them – keeping them off the glass and they just destroyed ther glass today.
“They were quicker to the basketball. A lot of our guards just turned and watched them play the ball. They out-quicked us to the ball today.”
JMU outrebounded the Hens 55-35 and the marathon possession led to 30-11 on offensive rebounds and, though not on that series, JMU routed Delaware 21-10 on second chance points.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in my 17 years of coaching,” Martin said of her team’s inability to get the ball during the long stretch that didn’t yield any points for JMU.
“We’re very fortunate. Relieved? Yes. But we have so much work to do right now before this season is over.”
Martin also said the CAA schedule had made things difficult in terms of getting enough practice time because of the way the games are squeezed together.
Brooks was philosophical about the setback, hoping that another shot may come in the tournament.
“I felt like I was bringing my team in her to the slaughter,” he said after having previously losing a close one back home to Delaware at the JMU Convocation Center in Harrisonburg, Va., several weeks ago on the day Delle Donne eclipsed his former star Dawn Evans to become the CAA’s all-time scorer.
“This situation, we had 10 straight shots that could have made the difference. That’s the way the ball bounces. You can’t fault our kids for effort. They had five seniors on the floor at the end and we had two freshmen and a sophomore. Very proud of our kids.”
Delaware goes to Hofstra Thursday night, returns her next Sunday to play Drexel, which has already been sold out, and then finishes hosting Georgia State.
JMU hosts Old Dominion, George Mason and then goes to Drexel.
Conceivably, Drexel could be down one game to the Duchesses, but with a win the last night, could get the second seed with a series sweep, even though the two either way would meet again in the CAA semifinals if they both advance.
“Drexel is a matchup nightmare for us. (Drexel coach) Denise (Dillon) does a great job. We told our kids, `Don’t hang your heads on this one. Just focus on the rest of the season.’”
Creighton Paces Drexel
The Dragons completed a three-game home stand, finishing with a sweep over a period of three games in six days.
Meghan Creighton, a freshman who hit her first four three-point attempts, had a career high 20 points to help the Dragons complete a season sweep of the Tribe (6-20, 4-11).
The 20-point game was the first by a Drexel freshman since Gabriela Marginean, who did it eight times her rookie 2006-07 season and finished her career as the all-time women’s collegiate scorer in the region in all three NCAA divisions.
Hollie Mershon added 16 points to Drexel’s total and also dealt eight assists.
Taylor Wootton had 10 points and Renee Johnson-Allen grabbed 12 rebounds.
William & Mary’s Emily Correal tied Creighton for game honors with 20 points.
Drexel heads to Georgia State, another school leaving the CAA, Thursday night, then finishes visiting Delaware and hosting James Madison on senior night.
Drexel beat writer Ari Bluestein for PhilahoopsW contributed to this post.