Just as with life, basketball has a way of making its point about things we all occasionally take for granted.
Junior center Stefanie Dolson has been one of UConn’s best players this season, a focal point in both the low and high post through which the ball moves and often is scored.
Entering Saturday’s game at St. John’s, Dolson was averaging 13.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in just under 27 minutes.
So when she woke up Saturday morning not feeling well, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma knew he had a potential problem brewing for that afternoon’s game against St. John’s.
“After our walkthrough and pregame, she was just shaking like she had a fever,” Auriemma said. “We thought, `OK, we’ve still got four hours before we play. So maybe [she might feel better].’
“Then we showed up [for the game] and I asked her what she thought [about how she was feeling]. She said she couldn’t even stand up. And this was right after we had put the starting lineups in. … She comes in [the locker room] all wobbly and she’s like, `I can’t do this.’
“So then, it was like roll the dice.’’
The dice came up 4-1 meaning the first career start for sophomore Kiah Stokes.
Stokes, who has been in and out of the lineup often with a stress reaction to her right shin, said she was nervous in the first half. She was subbed out for freshman Breanna Stewart after four minutes and returned for just two more before the half ended.
By that time, it was obvious to Auriemma how much the offense missed Dolson, also the nation’s leading field goal percentage shooter. But not only was UConn struggling offensively against a keyed-up Red Storm defense, it was allowing St. John’s players to get to the rim for easy baskets.
“It just goes to show you how much Stefanie means to our offense,’’ Auriemma said. “Playing without her, we’re not the same team.
“A huge portion of our offense runs through Stefanie. I keep hearing that we don’t have a true point guard, such as St. John’s has [Nadirah McKenith]. And we don’t have anybody like [McKenith] right now. So that’s why we use Stefanie like she was our point guard. A lot of stuff goes through her. And it was a major struggle because they’re a good defensive team.”
Using a number of different player combinations, Auriemma continued to experiement in the second half until finally settling on using Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis in the low post in the effort to get her more shots.
She made a jumper with 10:38 to play in the game, giving UConn a 51-48 lead, but little else until there was less than five minutes remaining and the game tied at 57.
But over the last 4:19, Mosqueda-Lewis scored seven of UConn’s final 14 points to help the Huskies to a 71-65 win.
“[Dolson] has become a huge part of what we do offensively and defensively,’’ said Kelly Faris, who had 17 points, five rebounds and three assists. “A lot of our offense runs through her., whether she’s getting somebody open or we’re passing her the ball and driving. Some way or another, the offense stems a lot off of what she does.
“So if there’s going to be instances where she may not be in the game, for whatever reason, we’re going to have to really buckle down and work and figure out who’s going to step up.’’
Dolson is expected to be ready for Tuesday’s game against Marquette at Gampel Pavilion. But at least now Auriemma has some idea of how best to compensate should be again be without one of his core players.
“It would be different if we had practiced with her not playing,” Auriemma said. “We would have spent a lot of time going over what happens when Stefanie’s not in the game.
“That’s a credit to her, and how much she’s made herself a big part of what we’re doing and how invaluable she is. You saw that [Saturday]. There’s no better example of how important she is to our team.”