Center Stefanie Dolson and point guard Bria Hartley, fellow New Yorkers, played on high school all-star and USA Basketball teams together before they entered UConn in the fall of 2010. The duo was thrust into starting positions as freshmen and both made solid impacts over the season helping lead UConn to a 36-2 record. Hartley ended up making Full Court’s 2011 Freshman All-American first team while Dolson made the second team. However, their freshman year ended with a highly disappointing loss to Notre Dame, whom UConn had beaten three times earlier in the season, in the semifinals of the 2011 NCAA national championships.
Maya Moore graduated after that, and the prospects for the 2012 season, especially given UConn’s historically stratospheric expectations, were very uncertain without the four-year all-everything superstar. Maya not only had been the top scorer on the team and Hartley’s best assist target, but she also had been the top passer on the team and Dolson’s best low post feeder. Could Hartley and Dolson increase their performance levels without Maya or even maintain those levels, or would the dreaded sophomore slump hit one or the other?
Auriemma downplayed expectations on his pre-season television shows, suggesting that the team was too inexperienced to make the Final Four, but blurted out that Stefanie Dolson might be the “second best center in the nation.” Whatever his original context, this statement flashed around the UConn fan base and the internet, and was soon in the mouths of national television game announcers.
As the season progressed and appeared to bog down somewhat with losses to Notre Dame and St. John’s in January and February, the sophomore slump chatter began to increase and the “second best center in the nation” label became the object of some embarrassment if not mockery for Dolson. Auriemma, on a late season television show, tried to joke his way out the situation by saying that his earlier appellation had been referring to Dolson only as the second best center “in the UConn nation.”
With that background, how did the New York duo of Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley perform this season, especially during the Big East and NCAA tournaments? Did they slump?
As much as people want to believe there was a slump, the numbers tell another story. Hartley increased her points per game from 12.4 last season to 14.0 this season, her assists per game from 2.9 to 3.7, and her rebounds per game from 3.6 to 3.9. Her field goal average of .465 was virtually the same as last season's .468. However, her three-point percentage dropped from .392 to .332. This drop in three-point shooting accuracy may be the primary cause of some fan’s subjective impressions that Hartley had been slumping.
When I asked Hartley about the slump she had this response, “There were times when I wasn’t hitting shots or whatever but I try to have the right mentality . . . and do other things to help my team out.”
Dolson this season averaged 10.4 points per game compared to 10.2 last season, though her field goal average dropped slightly from .616 to .586. Her rebounds per game were down very slightly from 6.1 to 6.0, but her assists and blocks per game were slightly up.
However, the statistics do indicate a period of inconsistency this season for both players during January and February, which one could call slumping. And during the NCAA Tournament Kingston Regional, Auriemma admitted as much. “The two of them really had their struggles,” he conceded.
As to Hartley, Auriemma further opined that, “She probably cost herself making some All-American teams because she went about a month without making a shot.” This likely was a reference to the announcement of the three Associated Press All-American teams. Hartley did not make any of the three AP teams, whereas her fellow first team Full Court Freshman All-Americans from last year, Odyssey Sims of Baylor and Chiney Ogwumike of Stanford, both made the AP second team—and Maryland sophomore Alyssa Thomas leaped all the way from Full Court’s 2011 second freshman team to the AP’s 2012 first team.
However, a few days later, there was significant redemption for Bria Hartley: she was named to Full Court’s All-American third team and also to the highly prestigious State Farm/WBCA ten-player All-American team. This latter accolade will entitle Bria Hartley to become the 14th player in UConn history to have her jersey enshrined on the Huskies of Honor wall at Gampel Pavilion.
As to Dolson’s inconsistency or slump, Auriemma said, “Stephanie has a tendency to get really down on herself when she’s not playing well. I think the Marquette game at Marquette was the low point for her”. This was a reference to the fact that he had benched Dolson for all but six minutes of that February 25 game, in which Dolson had a mere two points and one rebound. However, Auriemma quickly followed up that comment with the observation that, “Since that day she has been unbelievable.”
And that’s the point of this article’s headline: there was no sophomore slump for Hartley or Dolson during the all-important post-season tournaments, the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. Both players stepped up their scoring and offensive efforts when it counted the most.
During UConn’s three games in the Big East Tournament and five games in the NCAA Tournament, Bria Hartley averaged 15.3 points per game on 43% shooting. Importantly, Hartley agressively attacked the rim and drew 27 shooting fouls, making 22, for an 82 percent average from the free throw line. As Auriemma observed during the Kingston Regionals, Bria is “generally a big game player”, and her 18 points and seven rebounds against Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament championship earned her All-Tournament Team honors. She was also named to the Big East’s All-Conference first team.
Since her nadir game against Marquette, Stefanie Dolson stepped up her production to average 13.0 points per game, 6.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.6 blocks, while shooting 59% from the floor and 13-17 from the foul line. Along with Hartley, Stefanie was awarded All-Tournament Team honors in the Big East Tournament. In the opening two minutes of the Kingston Regional final game against Kentucky, Dolson hit two 18 foot jumpers and made a key block to help UConn blast out to a quick 9-0 advantage. Her play in the four Kingston Regional games ultimately earned Stefanie a place on the five-player Kingston Regional All-Tournament Team.
So, UConn’s duo of New York sophomores, after some mid-to late-season woes, indeed had stepped it up during tournament time—the time that always counts most for Auriemma’s UConn nation—as the team won the Kingston Regional and was rewarded with its fifth consecutive trip to the Final Four in Denver.
And what was the immediate reward in Denver? It was another semifinal game—a revenge match—against the Irish of Notre Dame, who featured everyone’s first team All-American point guard and social media star Skylar Diggins. The game was the eighth time the two Big East rivals had faced each other over the past two seasons, of which the Huskies had won four games and the Irish three. UConn had prevailed against Notre Dame in those contests in which Bria Hartley or Stefanie Dolson had big games.
Unfortunately, as in 2011, it was not to be for the Huskies in the 2012 NCAA semifinals, as they lost an overtime thriller filled with big plays, 83-75. However, the New York sophs continued their solid tournament play and carried much of the scoring load for UConn. Dolson scored 20 points on 10-16 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds. Hartley, playing without rest during a grueling 45 minutes at Denver’s debilitating high altitude, scored 18 points including 3-6 from the arc. Nonetheless, Stefanie and Bria again emerged from the Final Four with teary eyes and empty pockets at the hands of arch rival Notre Dame, and UConn ended its post-Maya season with a 33-5 record.
“Wait until next year” is the rallying cry of the ever-optimistic sports fan. And for UConn the optimism may be justified. Another New Yorker will join Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley next season, and they say "three's a charm." Her name is Breanna Stewart. Her hands have the wingspan of a 6’-10” player. And her pockets are weighed down with every prestigious trophy and award that can be given to a high school player.
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