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HARTFORD, Conn. -- Connecticut had to look inside itself when pushed to a place rarely seen in the program's four seasons with Maya Moore.
We're not talking new-age, self-help hokum here. This is still a team coached by Geno Auriemma, who has about as much in common with Tony Robbins or Deepak Chopra as he does with United Nations secretary general and global diplomat Ban Ki-moon. No, when the Huskies look inside, they do so less by introspection than by post entry pass.
Passes that land in the waiting hands of Stefanie Dolson, the freshman who might well be the next big thing in a Connecticut uniform, but who is unquestionably a very big piece of the championship puzzle right now.
|Stefanie Dolson has come a long way since her debut -- fouling out in 12 minutes in the season opener against Baylor.|
Pushed a full 40 minutes for the second time this season by Notre Dame, this time on one of the two courts it calls home, Connecticut won a fourth consecutive Big East tournament title in a 73-64 fight that was played with an intensity worthy of the late stages of the other tournament still to come. And the Huskies did it with an inside-outside combination that looked familiar to fans in the XL Center.
Maya Moore was voted the tournament's most outstanding player after scoring 22 points and adding 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks in the championship game, her last in a building in which she never lost. But at least one prominent participant without a vote seemed to cast an uncounted ballot of dissent.
"I didn't get to vote, but I know who I would have voted for," Auriemma said, the tone and facial expression, as is so often the case, leaving little doubt as to his unnamed preference.
Actually, make that two prominent dissenters.
"I wanted to tell Stefanie to go get it," Moore said of accepting the award.
Dolson led the Huskies with 24 points, the second time she reached that mark and the second time she led the team during its three tournament games. For good measure, she added nine rebounds and two blocks while playing 40 minutes against the Fighting Irish in a game in which, at least for much of the first half, avoiding a referee's whistle was as much a challenge for the players as solving the opponent's defense.
Moore was not an undeserving winner of individual honors and remains the best player in this or any other state these days. The championship game will not top a lengthy list of her best performances -- something for which Notre Dame's defense deserves no small measure of credit -- but she still hit big shots to help spark the mini-runs in the second half that gave her team just enough breathing room. It's just that a game, and to some degree a tournament, in which Moore needed another pair of shoulders with which to support the team made it that much easier to see what Dolson has become over the course of her freshman season.
After a semifinal loss against Notre Dame the night before, DePaul coach Doug Bruno lamented how effective the team from South Bend was at taking away his team's inside game, particularly senior post Felicia Chester. After the title game, it was Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw who was left to lament how efficiently Dolson dispatched her plan.
"She really hurt us again," McGraw said. "We thought we were going to double-team her, but we didn't get down there in time, and she was a little too much for us in the post."
Dolson and Tina Charles, the All-American she replaced, are distinctly different players at distinctly different stages of their basketball development. That caveat aside, it can't thrill potential NCAA tournament opponents that Connecticut once again appears to have an inside-outside threat, making it that much tougher to focus on Moore.
|UConn has won four consecutive Big East tournaments and 17 overall.|
"It definitely takes some pressure off because they've got to worry about her," Moore said of Dolson's effect. "It makes it easier for me to score, for us to get shots from the perimeter -- because if they leave it one-on-one for Stefanie, she's going to score; if they double-team her, somebody is going to be open. She's allowed our offense to really be able to be maximized because we have a lot of great shooters and people who can score. Tiffany [Hayes] can drive, Lorin [Dixon] can get inside, so we know that when the other team has to worry about Stefanie, if we just keep moving and find the open spot on the floor, we're going to get a good shot."
Moore's ability to play on the block notwithstanding, Dolson is essentially Connecticut's only post player at this point in the season, a situation created by fellow freshman Samarie Walker's decision to transfer to Kentucky in the middle of the season and an injury to senior Heather Buck, who was playing limited minutes as it was. That leaves the freshman with the physical task of playing major minutes (104 of a possible 120 in the tournament) and the mental task of holding up her end of the bargain on defense without getting into foul trouble (she had five in three games).
Everyone knew she had the potential to be special when she arrived. It just wasn't clear when she would be.
"I think there were a lot of times [early on], watching her practice, where I didn't know how long it would take," Auriemma said. "When the season started, to be honest with you, this is what I thought -- I thought if we could get 10 minutes from Stefanie Dolson and 10 minutes from Heather Buck, that's 20 minutes. The other 20 minutes, we'll kind of zig and zag and figure it out. So that's what I thought going in, and obviously, I don't have any idea what I'm thinking about because none of that ever came to pass.
"And maybe that's why she developed so quickly where [it was], 'Hey, Stef, just give us 10 minutes.' She was put in a situation where, 'You need to give us 30 minutes every night and it needs to be really, really good.' Sometimes that forces you to be better than you are, quicker than you want to be."
The ballots for the all-tournament team and most outstanding player had already been turned in when Connecticut set up its offense with a 64-59 lead and a little more than two and a half minutes to play, but what happened next highlighted Dolson's case. Moore freed herself for a jumper but missed. Battling for position, Dolson beat her defender to the rebound and converted the second-chance opportunity even as she was tumbling to the court from the initial collision. Instead of Notre Dame having an opportunity to cut it to a one-possession game going the other way, the Huskies had a seven-point lead and control of the game.
After nearly 38 minutes on the court against a Final Four-caliber opponent in a postseason environment, Dolson was still there to have Moore's back, as the senior star herself put it after the game.
"If you look at her play these last three days and you look at the player that fouled out in 12 minutes against Baylor in the second game of the year, and that's not the same person," Auriemma said. "Not even close."
Although just how much of her future is ahead of her was clear in her own comments after the game.
"I'm super excited," Dolson said after the game, drawing smiles out of those seated around her on the dais. "I mean, it feels great to know that we just won our first Big East championship, hopefully for more to come."
The crowd in Hartford got one last look at a player who won four Big East championships on this court. It also got a good look at a player who will help the Huskies this March and many Marches to come.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.