For most of her competitive life, UConn center Stefanie Dolson has looked down at her opponents. But we’re talking strictly in the north to south sense.
When you stand 6-foot-5, the vantage point a woman’s basketball player enjoys is usually advantageous. And one can grow accustomed to seeing the world from that particular peak.
That won’t be the case on Monday when No. 1 Baylor (24-1) meets No. 3 UConn (24-1) in what should be a raucous XL Center.
When Dolson posts up Monday, it will be against 6-8 Brittany Griner, a three-time All-American, last season’s national player of the year and the tower around which the reigning national champion is built.
And that will be different.
“When I played against Margo Dydek [the late WNBA center who stood 7-2] it was strange because I was always used to be the biggest player on my team,” said Kara Wolters, 6-7, the former UConn center. “You would go against her [Dydek] and say to youself, ‘holy crap.’
“It takes a few minutes to adjust. You get a couple of shots blocked and you say to yourself, ‘Well, Ok, I can’t do that anymore, let’s try something else. The game is going to be different for Stefanie. She’s not going to be able to shoot as easily from the inside, so it’s good that her outside game is developed.”
UConn’s one loss this season was by one point to Notre Dame on Jan. 5. Baylor’s one loss was by two points to Stanford on Nov. 16 in Hawaii. While this game may be the biggest of the year – the XL Center is within dozens of sales from being sold out – it doesn’t mean much in the big picture to Baylor coach Kim Mulkey.
“It’s good for women’s basketball,” Mulkey said last week. “It’s good for television. It’s good, I guess, for our program. We’re going to fight and coach hard and play hard and try to win, but I’m ready to celebrate a Big 12 Championship.
“If we go to UConn and we win, then it’s great. You’re supposed to win; you’re number one in the country. And if we lose, what have we lost? Nothing.”
And while the Dolson-Griner match-up may not determine the outcome of the game, it will be one to pay special attention too. It features the two best centers in the game today.
“No matter who you play against, you will have advantages or disadvantages,” Dolson said. “It is different for me to go against someone who is taller than me, but I have played against those just as big or tall as me. But all you do is to try to use what you have to your advantages.”
Griner is averaging 22.0 points, 8.6 rebounds and 29.3 minutes. She has 61 offensive rebounds, but that does not lead the Lady Bears. Destiny Williams has 69 and she averages more than nine minutes less a game.
It is on defense where Griner overshadows. She has 96 blocks this season and her presence discourages more shots than she rejects.
Dolson leads the nation in field goal percentage (62.7) and is 6 of 12 from three-point range, which means Griner may need to come outside to watch her.
So how Baylor approaches Dolson, in relation to her teammates, and how UConn approaches Griner, in comparison to her teammates, will interesting to chart.
“Stef has certain skills and advantages against some post players and she has deficiencies against others,” Auriemma said. “It’s the coach’s job to put her into a situation where the playing field is at least even. She’s can’t be 6-8 by Monday. So she will have to find a different way to impact the game than Brittney would. If she can be better at those differences, it makes our chances to win better.”
Griner has continued to sharpen as she has gotten older. Once in the WNBA – likely playing alongside Diana Tarausi in Phoenix, which holds the No. 1 pick – she will need to grow more.
Seton Hall coach Anne Donovan, a Women’s Basketball Hall of Famer who is also 6-8, coached of 2008 Olympic team and is future coach of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun.
She says her strategy against Griner would be to push her hard; but not too hard.
“If I had the chance to play against her, I would have been physical against her,” Donovan said. “That’s what people did with me. But what I think is a better idea is try to limit everyone else around her instead of trying to shut her down.”
Auriemma knows the effort against Griner will require a team effort, but only Dolson, Stokes and Heather Buck have been the floor against her.
“You cannot know what it is like to go against her unless you have already done so,” said Rebecca Lobo. “Stefanie Dolson knows what it is like to be on the court with Griner – Breanna Stewart does not. I think the only way to have any kind of success against her is to have prior experience playing her.”
Still, the utilization of backup posts Stokes, Morgan Tuck and Breanna Stewart, in support of Dolson is critical. Dolson has picked up eight fouls in just 37 minutes in two games against Griner.
Tuck warmed up with a strong 26 minutes against Rutgers Saturday. She scored 15 points [5 of 7] with five rebounds.
“If Brittney Griner is on the bench with four fouls on Monday with 15 minutes to play, I don’t think Baylor’s chances of winning are as good,” Auriemma said. “The same goes for Stefanie and our team. So you need contributions from other players.”