- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley didn't just dream of this ending. They expected it.
The Huskies' heart-and-soul seniors didn't imagine another scenario to cap their stellar college careers other than the one that played out Tuesday night in Nashville.
Dominant play, a struggling opponent, confetti falling from the ceiling, a celebration.
"We knew we were going to win tonight," said Dolson, standing amid the strands of confetti with a national championship hat on her head after the Huskies' 79-58 win over Notre Dame at Bridgestone Arena. "Right from the beginning we went into it so excited and so pumped. Everyone said we had a lot of pressure on our backs, but we didn't. We went in there having fun, we were loose and playing great. We knew it right at the beginning."
It was, in fact, Dolson, the team's resident comedienne, who shot things loose with a basket from the top of the arc to open the scoring in the game. Dolson finished her final game in a UConn uniform with 17 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists, her 20th career double-double. She fell one rebound short of the school's single-season rebounding record set in 2009-10 by Tina Charles (372).
It wasn't quite as productive a night for Hartley. She struggled to hit shots early but ended up with 13 points -- 11 of those in a second half in which Connecticut overwhelmed Notre Dame -- on 4-of-15 shooting.
"Maybe the excitement got the better of me a little bit," Hartley said.
The All-American duo left the court with about a minute left in the game, the result well in hand. Dolson skipped into the arms of coach Geno Auriemma for a long embrace.
Then Hartley came off, bursting into tears as she hugged the coach who was stomping his feet at her and yelling at her only minutes earlier.
"It was emotional," Hartley said. "Coach just kept saying, 'I know, I know, I know.' I was happy to finish my career like this, but kinda sad to see it end."
It ended with the team's second consecutive national championship and the ninth title in program history, allowing coach Geno Auriemma to pass Pat Summitt's eight NCAA titles at Tennessee. The Huskies went 40-0 to mark their fifth perfect season.
"When you don't lose a game, that's always special," Hartley said. "When you are a senior and you are leaving with a national championship, that makes it even more special."
Auriemma called Dolson and Hartley "two of the most unbelievable kids I've ever been around in my whole life." He admitted he was uncharacteristically emotional when he pulled them off the floor for the last time.
"To see their faces when they walked off the court," Auriemma said. "I don't usually get this emotional, but this one got to me."
Auriemma said he remembers tossing both Dolson and Hartley into the fire as freshmen, the Huskies in the middle of what would be an NCAA-record 90-game win streak. They started at win No. 79, then played their second collegiate game against Baylor.
"That's a lot to be thrown into when you are a freshman," Auriemma said. "Every day since that day, I can't think of two people who have given more of themselves or more to the University of Connecticut. And when they came off the floor, I think we all knew it was the end of something.
"It's a great ending, but it's coming to an end and that's when it hit me really hard."
Dolson and Hartley didn't say anything to each other before the game about making their swan song.
"It was unspoken," Hartley said. And they hugged as the clock wound down on their second title.
Connecticut sophomore Breanna Stewart, who was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player for the second year in a row, assured Dolson on Monday night that the Huskies would send her out with another title.
"I told her, 'I got you Stef, I got you,'" Stewart said. "I just wanted them to know that we had them. That we didn't want to send them off on a bad note."
Dolson said she felt her teammates playing for her and Hartley the entire night.
"I was thanking them most of the game for helping me to get a national championship in my senior year," Dolson said.
The 6-foot-5 Dolson arrived at Connecticut four years ago as a project for Auriemma. She needed to get in better condition, improve her fitness in order to be as effective inside as the Huskies expected. She finished as a team leader, a tone setter, a four-time Final Four attendee, a two-time All-American and a two-time national champion.
Hartley, an All-American as a sophomore, pushed through an ankle injury a year ago to contribute to the Huskies title run. She also closes her career as a two-time All-American, and ranked second on the team in scoring this season behind Stewart at 16.2 points a game.
Dancing up the ladder to cut down the nets on Tuesday night seemed like the appropriate way to finish for Dolson, who had challenged President Obama to a dance contest if the Huskies returned to the White House. (Last July, she infamously gave him bunny ears while UConn was being honored in Washington D.C.)
Hartley, meanwhile, was still sorting out her emotions when it was all done.
"I can't believe it went by so fast," Hartley said. "It sucks. But you only get four years. I hope I made the most of it."
14dBonnie D. Ford