The progress of junior center Stefanie Dolson has been well documented throughout this season. The transformation that she has made has been extraordinary.
Dolson has gone from a player who once struggled to run up and down the court for extended stretches to one of the nation’s most dominant post players. Her self-confidence has soared in light of her vast improvement. And so has her production.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma has regularly been complimentary of Dolson. But Monday night during the NCAA Tournament Selection Special on ESPN, he just might have given her his greatest compliment when he labeled her as the team’s go-to player, the one he wants to have the ball in a tight situation at the end of a game.
“I think based on what I’ve seen this season, giving the ball to the player that’s led the country in field goal percentage shooting for (most of the) year is probably not a bad way to go,’’ Auriemma said. “Now if she misses it’s the wrong decision, don’t get me wrong. But going into it, that would be my (choice). And because she’s an excellent free throw shooter. And because she’s an excellent passer if she doesn’t have a shot. So there’s a whole number of reasons why that’s who I would pass the ball to.’’
With that being said, of course, Auriemma could not help mix in a comedic remark.
“So I want everybody to double her if they get a chance,’’ he said. “So then I can throw it to who I really want to throw it to.’’
Dolson, who was named to the All-Big East first team and to the all-tournament team, is expected to be named an All-American in the coming weeks. She is second on the team in scoring (14.5), first in rebounding (7.0) and third in assists (3.2) in 27.3 minutes this season.
Dolson is also ranked second nationally in field goal shooting percentage (.588) and is shooting 78.5 percent from the free throw line. When she was made aware of Auriemma’s remarks, she was flattered.
“I think having him say that is definitely kind of the high point of what I’ve done has kind of paid off,’’ Dolson said. “I’ve worked hard getting to a point like this where when it comes down to it he wants me to have the ball in my hands. So it’s definitely proven a lot of how hard I’ve worked.
“It definitely means a lot that he has so much trust in me. I think I’ve done a good job of instilling that trust in him by just proving myself in practice every day that I can make those plays. Whether it’s taking the shot or throwing it to someone and giving that pass. It’s a cool feeling. It’s a cool thing to hear him say and I think I’ve done a good job of making sure that I’m ready for a situation like that.’’
Dolson said that she was a bit surprised that Auriemma would tab her as the go-to player instead of Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis or Breanna Stewart. Stewart and Mosqueda-Lewis, in fact, were the first two options on the play that the Huskies ran in the final seconds of a 61-59 loss to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament final March 12.
“It does (surprise me) because, obviously, when it comes down to who is one of our go-to players it’s definitely Kaleena or Stewie,’’ Dolson said. “But I think I’ve done a good job of kind of giving Coach confidence in me that I can make that last play and I think I have the confidence at this point where I kind of want the ball in the last possession and the last play of the game because I know I can do something good with it. So as much as it does (surprise me), it doesn’t because I know I’ve prepared well enough and have done enough to prove to him that I can be in that position.’’
As UConn prepares to begin its quest for an NCAA record-tying eighth national championship, Dolson is averaging 11.1 points and 6.9 rebounds in 10 career games in the NCAA tournament. She had 20 points and nine rebounds against Notre Dame in the national semifinals last season in Denver.