Stefanie Dolson, Breanna Stewart shine as UConn crushes Notre Dame
NASHVILLE -- UConn senior center Stefanie Dolson, like everyone who has played for Geno Auriemma, has a favorite story to tell about her coach, and she told hers with relish on the afternoon before Connecticut won its record ninth title in women's basketball. During an early-season practice her freshman year in 2010, Dolson grabbed a rebound during a drill and suddenly heard Auriemma barking for practice to stop. The coach charged out to the middle of the court toward Dolson, who was still months away from a health and fitness regime that reshaped her body and changed the direction of her basketball career.
"He took out a piece of paper and put it on the floor and said, 'You just jumped over that to get the rebound," Dolson said. "At the time I was thinking 'Dang, man!' It was blunt and I was little thrown off. At the same time, Coach has a way of throwing in humor to get you to laugh things off. But I remember what the message meant and I grew from that moment. I started thinking, 'Okay, I am not the best rebounder and I can't jump that high but I am going to work to a point where I am now with my body."'
Her body of work on Tuesday night was spectacular, a performance that reinforced why she will be picked in the first round of next week's WNBA Draft. Dolson finished with 17 points and 16 rebounds in UConn's punishing 79-58 victory over Notre Dame, but her impact went well beyond the numbers. Notre Dame felt her 6-foot-5 frame on every possession, as well as that of 6-foot-4 sophomore forward Breanna Stewart (21 points and nine rebounds). It was the most dominating post performance women's basketball has witnessed in a title game: UConn points in the paint advantage over Notre Dame was 52-22. That is not a misprint.
"They just overpowered us," said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw. "They killed us inside. "Their bigs were too much for us."
Auriemma left his starters in until the final minute -- perhaps sending a message to McGraw whom he sparred with during the week. The Huskies won nearly all the 50-50 balls in the second half, personified by Stewart's sprint to get a rebound off a long miss with under 5:00 left and a 22-point lead. UConn out-rebounded Notre Dame 54-31, the second highest rebounding margin in championship game history.
With Notre Dame (37-1) starting senior center Natalie Achonwa out with a torn ACL, Dolson and Stewart went to work immediately against the interior of the Irish defense. The teams matched baskets through the first 16 points but a 14-0 UConn run midway through the first half (12 of the points came on layups) set the tone for the game. It was the first time this season Notre Dame had a double-digit run against them and 16 of UConn's first 24 points came in the paint.
"Even before the game started we knew our post presence would be hard to stop," said Stewart, who has averaged 22.6 points in Final Four games and was named Final Four Most Outstanding Player for the second straight year. "The past few games we struggled shooting so we wanted to make sure we had easy looks at the basket."
Though the Irish cut the lead to 43-38 with 27 seconds left in the opening half -- the closest they would ever get -- the first half stats were telling. UConn outscored Notre Dame 32-10 on points in the paint and Dolson and Stewart combined for 24 of UConn's 45 first points. The Huskies' length on defense bothered the Irish as well. Notre Dame, one of the best shooting teams in the country during the season, scored just 20 points in the second half and shot 35.5 percent (22-for-62) from the field for the game.
UConn (40-0) opened the second frame on an 18-4 run over the first eight minutes, and the knockout blow came with 14:13 left. Sophomore point guard Moriah Jefferson missed a three-pointer about a foot to the left but Dolson was quick to the ball after it smashed off the backboard. The center muscled her way up for a layup and was fouled by Notre Dame freshman Taya Reimer. Dolson then hit her free throw to make it 60-42, and the Irish looked like a beaten team.
"Stefanie Dolson played the game of her life and got every rebound," Auriemma said. "That was the key."
In the crowd behind McGraw, sitting four rows up, former Irish All-America point guard Skylar Diggins could only shake her head as UConn pulled away. The Irish have vaulted to the second-best program in America -- thanks in part to Diggins' career in South Bend -- but the gulf remains wide between No. 1 and No. 2.
Dolson was pulled from the game with 1:01 left and gave Auriemma a bear hug which seemed longer than a television miniseries. She then hugged the other UConn assistants, as well as every player down the end of the bench. She finally ended up in the arms of fellow senior Bria Hartley, who finished an All-America-like season with 13 points and three assists. "My college career was up and down, amazing, a rollercoaster ride," Dolson said. "Emotions up and down, and to get two national championships? Not a lot of people can say that. Hard work pays off."
Indeed, UConn rolled through the competition in the Music City like Elvis Presley in his famed gold Cadillac. Away from the floor, the Huskies watched the first half of Monday's men's title game from the upstairs of Valentino's Ristorante, an Italian restaurant. They then sped on a bus at halftime back to their hotel and watched the UConn men defeat Kentucky from their hotel lobby, joined by 80 or so UConn fans. When the final buzzer sounded over the Wildcats, sophomore guard Moriah Jefferson led crowd in a chant of "UConn...Huskies...UConn...Huskies."
Warde Manuel, the school's athletic director, might have been the happiest man on the Bridgestone Arena floor after flying in from North Texas on Tuesday afternoon. His program has now pulled off the men's and women's basketball double twice (2004 and 2013), the only Division I school that holds that hoops honor.
"The personality trait the coaches share is both Kevin (Ollie) and Geno are funny guys who work really hard and care deeply about their players," said Manuel, who played defensive end for Bo Schembechler at Michigan in the late '80s. "I always emphasize this after playing for Bo: If they know you love them, you can work them hard and they will work as hard as they possibly can for you."
The game's conclusion ended (for now) the smack talk between Auriemma and McGraw, a back and forth that was spicier than the fried chicken at Huck Restaurant on nearby Rutledge Street.
On Monday afternoon, McGraw did not mince words when she was asked about her relationship with Auriemma. "We don't have a relationship," McGraw said, bluntly. You don't often see Tupac-Biggie style beefs in women's basketball but McGraw wasn't timid when she was asked if "hate" was an accurate word to describe the current status between the programs. "I think that is a fair assumption," she said.
There was no hate in the UConn locker room. The program has now won 46 games in a row, the third-longest winning streak in program history. It is also one of only two teams (along with Griner's 2012 Baylor team) to finish a season 40-0, the fifth time UConn has gone undefeated in program history. Associate head coach Chris Dailey has been on Auriemma's staff for 29 years, and swore Auriemma would not view his ninth title (which puts Auriemma ahead of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt) beyond what it meant for this year's team.
"I think he approaches it as getting Steph (Dolson) and Bria (Hartley) a championship their senior year, or Breanna Stewart her second championship," Dailey said. "He's never looked it at as I will get nine because the reality is we never thought we would get eight. The goal is to give this team an opportunity to win a national championship. Maybe this is how we were raised but when you are successful, you don't have to talk about. Let other people talk about it."
"Playing UConn is kind of like playing a WNBA team," said WNBA star Brittney Griner, who faced UConn four times while at Baylor including a 70-50 loss as a freshman in the 2010 Final Four. "That's the best way I can describe going up against UConn. They know you. They study you. They take no one lightly. Even if they are blowing out a team, they are still going to play as hard as they can. A lot of teams play down to who they are playing and won't go as hard. Not with UConn. They go hard every game for the whole game."
After Auriemma cut down a championship basketball net for a ninth time, his team surrounded him and tossed confetti all over his graying hair. Dolson led the brigade, chanting "Go, Coach, Go, Coach" as Auriemma bathed in victory. Then the group grabbed Auriemma's arms and legs and turned him into a human chariot. They carried him off the court, with Dolson, as she had been on the court, as the anchor.
"I'm really not a numbers guy," said Auriemma. "I don't really get caught up in that stuff. I've said this 100,000 times: Wednesday morning, when I wake up, win or lose, my life doesn't change one iota. Now Stewy (Stewart) said she came to Connecticut to win four national championships and I think it is significant for Bria and Stefanie Dolson to win a national championship their senior year. That's pretty significant because they only get X amount of chances to do it. God willing, I'll get more chances down the road."
In a hallway under the arena an hour after the game, Auriemma was asked if he kept any mementos from his championship. He said winning coaches get awarded rings for each championship but he has never worn one. His house is also generally absent of basketball stuff. The one thing he has collected over the years were photos of the most iconic images from the national championship teams. Those framed photos are the first thing that greet visitors at his office in Storrs. He is 9-0 in title games.
"I usually bring home bags under my eyes and I'm hung over," said Auriemma. "And I don't think that is going to change."
He then laughed the laugh of a champion.