NEWARK, Del. — Delaware was down by 20 points with under 9 minutes left and the fans were beginning to empty from Bob Carpenter Center, which was nothing new to the Blue Hens' men's basketball program. The student section stuck around longer than usual, although it was only a quarter full to begin with.
Little did those fans know that Feb. 5 would be the night Baltimore native Davon Usher would bring Delaware back to relevancy.
With under a minute to play, Usher stripped Cougars guard Anthony Thomas and went coast to coast, evading four defenders on his way to the rim. The 6-foot-6 senior guard flipped the ball through the net, sending Delaware on its way to a 67-64 victory. Usher had 42 points on the night, 30 of which came in the second half. It was the highest point total for a Delaware player in 50 years.
When the buzzer sounded, the students stormed the court for the first time since Blue Hens coach Monté Ross took the reigns in 2006. As his teammates embraced with complete strangers, Usher walked off the court in tears.
The night before, his grandmother passed away.
"I didn't tell any of my teammates," said Usher, a 2010 All-Metro selection from Digital Harbor. "I didn't want to make a big deal about it. But as the game went along, I just felt something that gave me energy. I don't know where it came from, but it was just a determination that drove me to do whatever it took to win the game."
Usher finished the regular season as Delaware's second-leading scorer, his 19.4 points per game bested only by Aberdeen product Devon Saddler, who averaged 20.2. This weekend, the duo will make a homecoming trip, leading the Blue Hens (22-9) to Baltimore Arena as the top seed in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, with a chance to earn the program's first NCAA tournament berth since 1999.
'Trying to sell myself'
For Usher, it's been an intricate climb to stardom at Delaware. After averaging 27 points and 12 rebounds in his senior season at Digital Harbor, Usher accepted a scholarship to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which at the time he said was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.
He never went.
"In high school I was kind of cocky," Usher said. "I just thought once I signed my Division I scholarship, I didn't have to do anything else. I was that man. I wasn't really familiar with the NCAA clearinghouse. In high school, I didn't have a mentor in my ear about that. I thought all I had to do was pass my classes. When my coach called and asked if I went through the clearinghouse, I said, 'No, I don't know what that is.' It was too late."
Usher wound up at Polk State College, a community college in Winter Haven, Fla. He spent two seasons there, averaging 8.2 points and 5.5 rebounds during his sophomore year. He was named second-team All-Suncoast Conference after both seasons, but without gaudy stats to impress Division I suitors, Usher once again found his career at a crossroads.
"During my sophomore year of junior college, I was just basically calling schools trying to sell myself to them," Usher said. "I was asking them if they needed players, or if they needed to see me work out. Nobody really reached out to me."
Mississippi Valley State, a team that had lost 98.9 percent of its scoring output from the previous season, was the only program to offer Usher a Division I scholarship. He was one of six JUCO transfers on the team and one of 13 players without any Division I playing experience.
The Delta Devils finished the season 5-23, but Usher led the Southwestern Athletic Conference in scoring with 18.8 points per game, which also ranked him 32nd in the nation.
After the program was hit with a postseason ban for his senior season, Usher posted on his Twitter account that he was looking to transfer once more. That's when Saddler, his former Amateur Athletic Union teammate, came calling.
"I saw a lot of potential," Saddler said. "He had the ability to stretch the floor, and bringing him here was going to be a way to take the pressure off of me."
Initially, Usher committed to Eastern Michigan for his final season of eligibility. But after Saddler called and pitched him Delaware, the prospect of playing close to home enticed Usher to take a closer look.
After losing 23 games at Mississippi Valley State, Usher said the opportunity to play for a talented Blue Hens team sealed his fate. And because the Delta Devils were hit with a postseason ban, he was allowed to transfer and not sit out a year.
"I could go to Delaware, win a championship and win a lot of games," Usher said. "To do it with Devon, with someone from your city who you grew up in the struggle with, that was the best sell you could have. I was all in."
'The rock ... was Davon'
For Ross, taking on another scorer had the potential to destroy locker room chemistry. With the senior Saddler returning along with guards Jarvis Threatt and Kyle Anderson, Delaware's backcourt was already full of offense.
Ross said it was Saddler who eventually convinced him to offer Usher a roster spot.
"Devon Saddler said, 'We need to take him. It won't be a problem,'" Ross recalled. "I trust Devon. Because he would have been one of the guys most impacted by it, and when he gave the OK and said it would be fine, I knew it was going to work out."
At the time Ross didn't know the impact Usher would have on his program. In just his second game at Delaware, Usher put up 30 points against Charleston Southern.
"He did some things in the game that I had not seen him do in practice," Ross said. "I just saw his natural scoring ability in the game. From that point on, I thought this kid had some stuff with him that's going to allow us to be pretty good, because he's pretty good himself."
On Nov. 12, Saddler, who is now Delaware's all-time leading scorer, was suspended a month for a violation of university and team policies. Usher averaged 19 points in the seven games Delaware played without Saddler, including a 27-point performance in a four-point loss at Villanova, which is now the No. 6 team in the country.
Two months later, Threatt was suspended for a month. Saddler and Usher led Delaware to a 6-2 record without its starting point guard.
"We don't have that record without Davon Usher," Ross said. "The rock, the constant through everything was Davon. And those are times that he really elevated his level of play, when those two guys were out at separate times."
This weekend, eight other teams will attempt to knock off the top-seeded Blue Hens, including No. 2-seeded Towson (22-9), which defeated Delaware on Feb. 17, a game Threatt missed.
No CAA team has beaten Delaware at full strength this season. But with three games standing between Delaware and a CAA title, Usher said it's important that he and Saddler make a point to perform at their best in Baltimore.
"Not too many guys even have a chance to play in front of people in their city, let alone for a conference championship in Division I basketball," he said. "That's just a blessing. It'll be great for us to win in our city."