- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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DENVER -- There is only one center here who is capable of changing the game, but Baylor's Brittney Griner is not the only player whose long shadow could change a game at the Women's Final Four this weekend.
Connecticut sophomore Stefanie Dolson had had her ups and down this season, but when you're 6-foot-5, the ups are worth the wait.
Charged last season as a freshman with replacing current Olympian Tina Charles on a team that lacked much post depth to begin with and lost even more when Samarie Walker transferred midway through the campaign, Dolson held up to the pressure and only got better as her first season progressed. She starred at times in the postseason a year ago, putting up 24 points against Georgetown in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament and 24 more in the final against Notre Dame.
After a summer spent alongside teammates Bria Hartley and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis on a United States youth national team, Dolson appeared ready to inherit a more prominent role this season as the offense reshaped itself without Maya Moore.
It didn't work out so seamlessly. Dolson opened the season with some good moments against teams like Stanford and Texas A&M, coming close to double-doubles in both games; but by the penultimate game of the regular season against Marquette, she found herself on the bench for all but six minutes and bore the brunt of harsh criticism from Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma.
In eight games since, Dolson has averaged 12.1 points and 6.3 rebounds, both well above her season averages, to help fuel the team's seven-game postseason winning streak.
"There were times in practice when I thought, 'I can't believe she's made that much progress in one year,'" Auriemma said of Dolson's early season. "Then, in the middle of the season, she completely lost it -- lost her confidence, lost her mojo, whatever that is. She didn't have it anymore. I think that's much more normal. It's not normal to come in as a freshman, start off great, keep playing better and better and better, and come in as a sophomore, pick up right where you left off and keep going on the learning curve straight up. So I think what happened to her in January and February maybe set her up to have the kind of March that she's having. She's happy, she's having fun, she's self-confident."
The last of that may be the most important part of Dolson's game. Physically, she has all the tools to be one of the five best centers in the country. She is nimble for her frame, has a soft touch on her midrange jumper and passes well from the high post. But her wingspan is nothing compared to the size of her personality; both stand out on this particular team.
"She's the kind of kid that can loosen things up," Connecticut associate coach Chris Dailey said. "She's the kind of kid that, I don't know that she's had too many bad days in terms of being unhappy. She's an upbeat kind of kid -- emotional, but upbeat. It helps our team when she's like that. It allows the other players to kind of do that, as well. I don't know that we have a lot of kids that are like that."
So, it's no coincidence that the darkest days of Dolson's season coincided with the most dour stretch of basketball Connecticut has played in years. A nonfactor in a loss at home against St. John's in the middle of February, she watched most of the following game against Marquette. It was part of a string of games that month in which she failed to reach double digits and irritated Auriemma with fouls or careless turnovers.
Happy-go-lucky, even goofy, off the court (she can go through enough inflections and voices in the course of answering a question to make you wonder if you've stumbled into a "Saturday Night Live" skit), she had a choice to either wallow in self-pity or stand up for herself on the court. Her course of action mirrored that of the team around her.
"I just kind of had to fight back," Dolson said. "Coach is always doing things for a reason to get a reaction out of players, so that he benched me, it was tough, but it was a good learning experience. It made me a tougher person, [made me] learn how to kind of fight back to him and just kind of prove to him that I can be the kind of player he wants me to be."
The kind of player he wants her to be is one thing; no amount of Auriemma's ire is going to change the kind of person she is.
"That span of the year that I wasn't doing well, I think it's hard to keep that personality on the floor," Dolson said. "But off the floor, I don't think I change much, usually, fun, outgoing, I guess. So I don't think it really correlates. But definitely on the floor, the personality kind of wavered a little bit, but it's back."
Dolson's energy and emotion, if not entirely quantifiable, are important parts of arguably the nation's best defense. With the exception of Kelly Faris, Connecticut's roster isn't loaded with players who might be reasonably considered lockdown defenders. But with Faris working against the opposing team's best players and four guards in all working together to apply cohesive pressure, it is a defense that could win this team a championship. Dolson isn't Griner by any stretch, but her place as the last line of defense in that mix is imperative to Connecticut's success.
"She's so smart back there," Connecticut's Caroline Doty said. "If we do get beat, she does a great job of keeping her hands up. Even though they call some fouls on her that are kind of questionable, she does a great job of keeping her hands up and contesting shots. Just having her back there helps so much, knowing that she's going to, one, get a rebound or, two, block a shot or alter a shot. Just to have that security back there really helps us to pressure the ball and try to rattle the ball handler."
Dolson's history against Notre Dame is mixed (the two teams meet in Sunday's national semifinal at 6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), as might be expected when the Fighting Irish throw such a radically different kind of post player against her in Devereaux Peters; but along with Hartley and Mosqueda-Lewis, Dolson has the ability to change the tone of a game on the offensive end.
And for all the ups and downs this season, there is an undeniable upward momentum in the career of someone just now reaching the halfway mark.
"Is this where I thought she'd be when we recruited her?" Auriemma said. "This is where I'd hoped she'd be, but you're never quite sure."
After struggling earlier this season, Connecticut sophomore center Stefanie Dolson is peaking at the right time for the Huskies.