By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — Stefanie Dolson would never forget.
The memories came rushing back anyway as soon as the University of Connecticut women’s center walked onto the court at the Al McGuire Center in Milwaukee a week ago.
Last Feb. 25, Dolson was benched against Marquette after playing six unproductive minutes, totaling two points and one rebound. About 11 months later she returned with a purpose.
“What happened last year was in my mind,” Dolson said. “It was a chance to redeem myself and to prove to everyone that I was a different player and that something like that wouldn’t happen again.”
Dolson has been a different player since and her junior season has been her best and most consistent since she arrived here.
And when the third-ranked Huskies face Syracuse Saturday at the XL Center in Hartford (4 p.m., SNY), Dolson will have a chance to join an exclusive club. With eight points, she’ll become the 36th UConn player with 1,000 in their careers.
“It’s exciting, a cool achievement,” Dolson said. “It’s not on the top of my mind. I just want to go out there and play a great game with the team and after the game get ready for Duke.”
Dolson comes in averaging career highs of 13.1 points and 6.7 rebounds in 26.7 minutes. She ranks first in the Big East and fourth nationally in field-goal percentage (60.8). She also has 15 more assists than turnovers after being a minus-43 in her first two seasons.
She’s been in double figures a career best seven straight games, including 20 points a week ago against Marquette. She followed that up with 16 points and nine rebounds in another redeem game against Louisville Tuesday night.
Even if the 6-foot-5, Port Jervis, N.Y., native didn’t remember what happened a year ago in Milwaukee, someone else was in town to remind her.
“I made a point to bring up before the Marquette game that our big guys didn’t do anything to help us there last year,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We played with five guards most of the time. Big guys have a specific role on your team and if they’re not playing that role there’s no point in having them out there.
“If you think of what that role is … You’ve got to be a decent defender in the lane. You have to be a pretty good rebounder. You have to screen a little bit. You have to score in there a little bit. You have to pass the ball a little bit. It’s not easy doing all those things. But if you look at Stefanie this year you’d be hard pressed to find an area she hasn’t been good as a post player. She’s put herself in a position where if you would describe what is a real good post player and what would they do, Stefanie’s all those things. And she didn’t used to be.”
Dolson’s surge actually began right after the benching. She earned spots on the Big East and NCAA Kingston (R.I.) Regional all-tournament teams and scored 20 points in the Final Four overtime loss against Notre Dame in Denver.
In the offseason, she got into the best shape of her life and it’s paid dividends.
“It’s crazy how much more you’re able to help your team when you’re more physically fit and healthier and able to be in the game longer,” Dolson said. “I think the team relies on me for energy so it’s important for me to be on the floor.”
And be a leader.
“I’m a lot more mature and a lot stronger mentally,” Dolson said. “Last year with Marquette I was benched and against Louisville I got wrapped up in the things that were going on in the game. As you mature and grow as a player you learn not to let that stuff effect your game.
“There are some things you have control over and some things you don’t have control over. One of the things you do is getting upset or angry. You have to go out and play your game.”
If Dolson can get eight or more points today, she’ll join teammate and classmate Bria Hartley in the 1,000-point club.
Hartley got there a season ago, the third UConn sophomore to do so.
“It shows how much you’ve worked and how much you want to contribute to this program,” Hartley said. “Stef’s one of those players you can see the work she’s done and the progress that she’s made. It’s paid off.”
The All-American guard admits she would love to have the assist that gets Dolson the milestone.
“That would be awesome,” Dolson said.
“If I can, I’ll try,” Hartley said. “I don’t count points. But if I notice it, I’ll try.”
Of course, the No. 1 objective for the Huskies (15-1 overall, 3-1 Big East) Saturday is to get a win.
Syracuse (15-1, 3-0) is one of four unbeaten teams in league play. Senior center Kayla Alexander has emerged has one of the Big East’s best. The Orange are also getting the job done with three freshmen in their starting lineup. The game is the last Big East regular season meeting between the schools as Syracuse will head to the Atlantic Coast Conference at the end of the year.