BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- A whole lot more than Delaware's heart appeared in danger of being broken in Saturday's NCAA Tournament regional loss to Kentucky here. What can best be described as hands-on defense -- almost constant physical contact from Kentucky forearm checks and slaps and body blocks -- literally left Kentucky's fingerprints all over its 69-62 victory.
Underdog Delaware, one of those so-called "mid-majors" making a late March push against the Big Names, brought to the game the compelling story of fifth-year senior Elena Delle Donne, who had chosen home and family over major possibilities with perennial power Connecticut and wound up as the fifth most prolific scorer in NCAA Division I history with 3,039 points.
In her swan song, she performed admirably with 33 points, nine rebounds and two assists. Kentucky took a 16-point lead moments into the second half, but Delle Donne's pull-up jumper brought sixth-seeded Delaware (32-4) within 62-60 with 2:47 left.
But Kentucky junior Kastine Evans promptly answered with a three-point basket and second-seeded Kentucky (30-5) proceeded to muscle its way into Monday night's Elite Eight matchup against UConn in the Bridgeport Regional final. Delaware's winning streak ended at 27 games.
It was no contest for the timid. The Kentucky stranglers, who press and trap and double-team all over the court and are not shy about daring the officials to call a foul, had sent Delle Donne to the foul line 10 times by halftime (she converted all 10 and finished 11-for-11 on free throws). To hear the Delaware fans, the foul-line opportunities should have been double that.
They, like Delaware's players, were not immune to Kentucky's maddening, traffic-snarling defense. Delle Donne, who committed only 28 turnovers in 29 previous games, had five Saturday. Meanwhile, Kentucky's offense had the outside scoring of Bronx junior Jennifer O'Neill (19 points) and the from-everywhere scoring of senior A'dia Mathies (19).
Eventually, Delaware coach Tina Martin prevailed on her players to fight fire with fire, "to get some bodies on some people" in the second half. Indeed, play became rough enough that Mathies, who dealt out her share of physical punishment, had to sit briefly after an accidental pop in the nose early in the second half as Delaware began to give as much as it took.
Delaware senior Lauren Carra, hardly the tallest player at 5-9, began to drag down rebounds (she finished with 10). Ultimately, though, Kentucky could not be caught.
So Delle Donne, who was one of the most highly sought high school players in the country five years ago but abandoned her plan to play at UConn two days after stepping on that campus, will not play Monday night against those who might have been her teammates.
She had realized back then that she wanted to stay home, in part to be with an older sister who was born blind, deaf and with cerebral palsy, and she became something of a local celebrity, cheered last week by a crowd that included Vice President Joe Biden.
Of course, UConn, seven times the national champion, still is playing for this year's prize. But, Delle Donne said, "It's far more than championships for me. I've just enjoyed playing this game that I've absolutely loved, meeting some awesome teammates that I will be friends with for life, built bonds with my coaches that will last forever."
There would be tears shed, Martin said, "but there shouldn't be" among her team. And for Delle Donne, Martin said before Saturday's loss, "The happy ending has already occurred. The happy ending is that Elena is happy."