By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — Stefanie Dolson has raised her game in her junior season with the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team to become one of the best centers in the country.
Baylor senior Brittney Griner is not only the best center in the country, she is the best player and the most unique at her position in a generation.
Whether it’s the decisive matchup Monday night when the third-ranked Huskies entertain No. 1 and defending national champion Baylor at the XL Center in Hartford Monday night remains to be seen. Without a doubt, though, it is the most intriguing matchup.
“I think I’m better prepared for it,” Dolson said. “Being in better physical shape I won’t be as tired going against Brittney. With me, it’s big. Once I got tired I tended to foul or I thought that getting into her body a lot was going to be the right way to defend her, but it just got me two fouls quick. So I just think I am a smarter player. I am more mature.”
Dolson enters the game averaging 14.2 points with a nation’s best 62.7 field-goal percentage and 6.3 rebounds. But the 6-foot-8 Griner is different than anyone she’s seen all year or in her career.
The reigning national Player of the Year is averaging 22.0 points on 59.4 percent shooting from the floor, 8.6 rebounds, and 3.8 blocks. She needs 25 to join the 3,000-point club for her career and is the NCAA record holder in blocked shots with 695.
The teams split their home-and-home series the past two years with both teams holding serve on their home court. But in both games Dolson got into early foul trouble.
Two seasons ago, the Port Jervis, N.Y., native picked up two fouls in the opening 3:06 and fouled out in just 12 minutes of UConn’s 65-64 win at the XL Center. A season ago in Waco, Texas, Dolson got two fouls in the first 4:54 and was replaced by Heather Buck. She played 25 generally ineffective minutes in the Huskies’ 66-61 loss to the Bears.
“But I think I’m a completely different player than I was last year,” Dolson said. “Even over a year, I think I have grown a lot from last year and the team has grown a lot from last year. So I think we are all going to be ready and mentally prepared.”
UConn (24-1) pushed its winning streak to 12 with Saturday’s 65-45 Big East win over Rutgers in Piscataway, N.J. Dolson had 14 points but it was freshmen Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson that came off the bench to spark a comeback from a 10-point first-half deficit.
Baylor (24-1) has won 22 straight and 64 of its last 65 games. The Bears’ saw their 42-game winning streak snapped by Stanford 71-69 on Nov. 16 at the Rainbow Wahine Classic in Honolulu. All-American point guard Odyssey Sims played just four minutes due to a leg injury.
They clinched at least a tie for the Big 12 regular season title with four games to go with their 78-45 rout of TCU Saturday in Waco. The closest game they’ve played in their current winning streak was a 73-61 victory at Notre Dame Dec. 5.
“They’re the team to beat until somebody beats them in the NCAA tournament,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “They are the defending champions and they have everybody back. They should win. That is what everybody said about us in 2009 and 2010. And I haven’t seen anything during the season to lead me to believe that they aren’t as good as last year if not better.
“So I think that is probably the feeling that most people around the country have that somebody would have to play a great, great game and they would have to play less than their great game to beat them. But in the NCAA tournament, that can happen. That has happened a lot in the history of the tournament.”
A year ago in Waco, UConn fell into an early nine-point hole but outscored Baylor by 20 over a 20:50 span to take a 50-39 lead with 13:17 left. But Baylor went on a 10-0 run and four free throws by Sims in the final 90 seconds clinched the Bears’ win.
The Huskies hope being a year older and wiser will help them if that scenario plays out again Monday night.
“We can’t make dumb errors,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “We had them down 11 at their place and gave it away. A lot of it was our mental errors and that happened to us all of last season.
“It’s a big game with two of the best teams in the country playing but it’s not the last game. It’s not like, ‘Oh, if we got out there and play well and win, who cares?’ We want to win as badly as anyone.”
To pull that off and likely regain the No. 1 ranking in the polls, the Huskies will need Dolson at her best.
“I think Stefanie certainly has become maybe the most important player on our team because she can do so many things to help our team win,” Auriemma said. “Having someone like her makes all the difference in the world.”
And she hopes to be the difference maker Monday night.