By PAT EATON-ROBB, Associated Press
STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut center Stefanie Dolson is getting used to big expectations.
UConn’s 6-foot-5 freshman came into the season as the heir apparent to Tina Charles, last year’s national player of the year.
She thought she was ready. She says she knows now that she wasn’t.
Dolson says that became apparent after the second game of the season, when she scored just two points and played just 13 minutes against Baylor star Brittney Griner in a 65-64 UConn win.
She said it became crystal clear after the team’s lone loss of the season to Stanford on Dec. 30, which snapped the Huskies’ record 90-game winning streak. Dolson scored just six points and grabbed five rebounds.
“After the loss, CD (associate head coach Chris Dailey) said to me, ‘I need you to lose weight, get in better shape and be a beast in the weight room,”’ Dolson said. “I said all right, and I did.”
She said she has dropped a few pounds, added some muscle, and increased her strength, speed and stamina.
Connecticut star Maya Moore said Dolson has transformed herself into a key cog in the Huskies offense along the way.
“I think she’s really starting to get a rhythm and kind of a comfort zone of getting position,” Moore said. “Because once she gets the ball, we know what she can do with the ball.”
After averaging less than eight points a game in the team’s first 22, Dolson has averaged 13.5 in the final eight, while
playing more than 25 minutes a game. She was named the conference’s rookie of the week twice in February, and was a unanimous selection to the league’s all-freshman team that was announced Thursday.
“Stefanie has just been getting better and better every day,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “I know that people who haven’t seen her in a while are just amazed at the change in her in such a short period of time.
“Stefanie has turned into somebody you can trust, day in and day out.”
Opponents have noticed. Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman said Dolson is developing into the league’s dominant inside player.
“She can turn over either shoulder,” he said. “Normally, you can say jump on somebody’s left shoulder and they can’t go the other way. But she’s not that kind of player. She can go both ways and make shots.”
Some of her improvement has come out of necessity. At the beginning of the season, Dolson was sharing time with freshman Samarie Walker, with sophomore Heather Buck providing mop-up duty off the bench.
But Walker transferred to Kentucky in January, and last week, Buck suffered a stress injury to her left foot that is expected to keep her out through the Big East tournament.
That leaves Dolson as part of a six-player rotation and UConn’s only viable post option.
“That’s asking a lot with no margin for error,” Auriemma said.
“Ninety percent of the time, it’s not an issue. Ten percent of the time, it is because you can’t give your players a breather when they’re playing poorly. The fatigue and wear and tear mentally is almost worse than physically.”
Dolson said it hasn’t bothered her at all, and she’ll be ready to play 40 minutes a game, if that’s what is needed.
“It’s not the number of players that you have, it’s the quality of players that you have,” she said. “It’s just a mental thing now. I might be tired, but I need to push through. I mean, we have the media breaks like every four minutes.”
It’s that type of attitude that has made Dolson a fan favorite, especially in the student section. That’s where Dolson can be found during UConn’s men’s basketball games, standing in the front row, helping to lead the cheers and chants.
“I like the foul one,” she said, acting out the chant the students do in unison when an opponent commits a foul.
“You, you, you — it’s you! I love that one.”
Dolson said it’s very important for her to be a part of the university, not just a player on its basketball team. But she also wants to make a mark on the court.
“I can’t fill the shoes of Tina Charles,” she said. “I just have to make my own name, and I think I realized that about halfway through the year.”
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)