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Article posted: 5/17/2013 6:04 PM

Sky's Delle Donne relies on strong family ties

By Patricia Babcock

So far, so good for Elena Delle Donne.

The Sky's top draft pick rolled up a game-high 17 points in her first game as a professional, Wednesday's 87-67 preseason win over the New York Liberty at Chicago State.

She hit 6 of 9 shots, including 2-of-3 three-pointers, and also tallied 3 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 blocks.

Chances are, Delle Donne will often fill up the stat sheet in a similar fashion this season. But when she doesn't, when she struggles -- as most rookies tend to do from time to time -- Delle Donne knows exactly where to turn for strength and perspective.

"It's my sister," the 6-foot-5 Delle Donne says without hesitation.

Delle Donne's older sister Lizzie fights to get through every day. She was born deaf and blind and with cerebral palsy. Lizzie has never been able to speak to Elena, but the bond between the two sisters is unmistakable.

"Lizzie means the world to me," Delle Donne said. "She probably has the intelligence of a newborn. She literally doesn't even know that I'm her sister, she doesn't know I'm a basketball player, none of that. But she knows that I'm a really important person in her life."

That street runs two ways. Delle Donne, the nation's top recruit coming out of high school, was lost without Lizzie when she first got to college. The Delaware native left perennial power Connecticut just days after arriving on campus and transferred to the University of Delaware so that she could be just a 20-minute drive from her sister.

"Lizzie's been my inspiration my whole life," Delle Donne said. "Just for her to go through every day, getting out of bed, eating breakfast, going to her school for the day, it's incredible that she can do that. If I'm ever having a bad day, I can go back to her and say, 'C'mon, I'm not having a bad day at all.' She's always putting life into perspective for me."

Delle Donne puts just as much importance on her relationship with older brother Gene, a 6-foot-7 former college football player at Middle Tennessee State who is now her agent.

"Not only am I close with my sister, but a lot of people forget about Gene," Delle Donne said. "My brother and I are best friends. We've been so close my entire life. He's awesome and a great big brother."

And like any good big brother, particularly a 6-foot-7 big brother, Gene made it his responsibility to toughen up his little sister on the basketball court.

"Gene doesn't let anyone else beat me up, but he can beat me up," Delle Donne said with a laugh. "We play a lot of 1-on-1 together, and he beats me up. I need it though, it makes me better."

Delle Donne is at her best when her family, including Lizzie, is in the stands. The good news for Sky fans is that her parents are planning to make plenty of trips to Chicago, and around the WNBA. Already, her mom has been here to help her move in to her new apartment, and her dad attended the preseason game.

"We're a really close-knit group, we were the kind of family that had Sunday dinners together every week," Delle Donne said. "My family means so much to me."

This and that:

Two-time defending national champion Northwestern will host an NCAA quarterfinal women's lacrosse game against Penn State at 7 p.m. today at Lakeside Field in Evanston. The No. 2 Wildcats (18-2) defeated No. 7 Penn State (14-6) by a 9-9 overtime decision earlier this month in conference tournament action. ... The DePaul softball team found out Sunday that it will miss the NCAA Tournament field for just the second time in the last 17 years. But both West Chicago product Mary Connolly and Kirsten Verdun have been selected to the first team of the NFCA Great Lakes region. ... The University of Tennessee recently announced a very deserving honor with its plans to erect a statue of legendary women's basketball coach Pat Summitt near the athletic facilities on campus. Summitt stepped down from her coaching duties last season after revealing she had early-onset Alzheimer's disease. She now serves as the team's coach emeritus.

pbabcock@dailyherald.com

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