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Five years later, Auriemma gets to coach touted recruit


Sometimes, things don’t work out as planned but fate helps those plans eventually come to fruition.

In 2008, Elena Delle Donne was ready to play basketball at Connecticut for Geno Auriemma. But her older sister Elizabeth’s health battles were so severe — she has cerebral palsy and has been blind and deaf since birth — that Delle Donne opted to stay closer to her family in Wilmington, Del. She left Connecticut and even took a year off from basketball, opting to play volleyball at the University of Delaware.

Eventually, Delle Donne returned to the basketball court and became an All-American for the Blue Hens.

On Friday, Delle Donne and Auriemma were on the court together, in Las Vegas of all places, as USA Basketball held its women’s national team minicamp at Cox Pavilion. Auriemma recently agreed to return as national team coach through the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, and Delle Donne, who had a sensational rookie season with the WNBA’s Chicago Sky and was selected as the league’s rookie of the year, hopes to land a spot on the Olympic team.

“It’s great to be here with him,” Delle Donne said after practice. “It was a tough decision to not play for him at UConn, but we’ve always gotten along, and I’m looking forward to learning from him. The way he breaks things down and teaches the game, it’s amazing. I want to be a sponge and soak everything up this weekend.”

Auriemma said he’s glad to get another chance to work with the talented 24-year-old, 6-foot-5-inch forward.

“Things happen in life sometimes,” he said. “Certainly we would have welcomed the opportunity to have her with us at UConn, but she’s a great kid with a tremendous amount of talent.”

Delle Donne was draining jumper after jumper during Friday’s practice, and it was evident she belongs with the best players, even though her national team experience is limited to 2011 when she played for the gold medal-winning team at the World University Games. For her, this is a new challenge, and she will not allow complacency to creep in.

“If anything, it’s going to make me work harder because these are the greatest players in the world,” she said. “I want to be part of the winning legacy that has been created and help add to it.”

It’s an imposing legacy, indeed. Since 1996, the U.S. women are 80-1 in international competition that includes five consecutive Olympic gold medals and three world championship golds. The competition to land one of the 12 roster spots for next year’s world championships figures to be fierce.

“It’s amazing how you say ‘Las Vegas’ and instead of 20 players you get 30,” Auriemma said with a laugh about USA Basketball’s decision to bring its minicamp to UNLV’s campus with the 28 players who will practice today and Sunday at Mendenhall Center. “But we obviously have a very competitive situation here, and I thought the first day went well.”

For Delle Donne, her transition from college (she averaged 26 points and 8.5 rebounds as a senior) to the WNBA, where she averaged 18.1 points and 5.6 rebounds in leading Chicago to the Eastern Conference regular-season title and the Sky’s first playoff berth, went smoothly. It helped prepare her for this weekend’s minicamp.

“I handled it well,” Delle Donne said of her rookie season in the WNBA. “I was on a great team with great teammates and great coaches, and it was a lot of fun.

“But it’s a whole different feel to wear that ‘USA’ across your chest. I always dreamed of being at this top level, and to be playing with these veteran players, it’s a huge thrill for me.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

 

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