STORRS, Conn. — Stefanie Dolson has helped Connecticut to a 133-11 record and a national championship in her four years on the team. But she’s also brought to the program something coach Geno Auriemma believes has been just as important — joy.
The Huskies’ 6-foot-5 center has starred in a YouTube video dressed as a Dalmatian, jumped out of a perfectly good airplane and put "bunny ears" behind the president during a White House photo opportunity.
"There’s been very, very few people that I’ve encountered in my life that have enjoyed the experience more than she has, and brought that kind of joy to the court and to everything else that we do," said Auriemma, in his 29th season at the school.
On Saturday, before UConn’s final regular-season home game against Rutgers, Dolson and senor Bria Hartley will have their names added to the "Huskies of Honor" wall at Gampel Pavilion. They’ll join just 13 other players recognized as the best in the history of the program.
Top-ranked UConn (29-0, 16-0 American Athletic Conference) also hopes to win a ninth national championship and make another White House visit. President Barack Obama promised that if Dolson comes back, he’ll compete with her in a dance-off.
Dolson has scored 1,672 points so far in her UConn career, six points out of 13th on the school’s all-time list. Heading into the Rutgers game, she needs just six rebounds to reach 1,000. She also has 340 assists and 230 blocked shots. This season, she recorded the second triple-double in program history, scoring 26 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing out 11 assists in a win over Oregon.
A lot of that success can be traced to her attitude, Auriemma said. While some players treat college basketball as a chore, Dolson comes to practice as if there is no place in the world she would rather be, he said.
While waiting to throw the ball in after a TV timeout, she’s been known to break out a dance move on the baseline to the music in the arena.
"That was just something I kind of stepped into and has been my favorite part, just having fun with these girls and making sure they are always having fun, too," Dolson said.
She’s been a starter since her freshman season, but was criticized after her sophomore year for being too slow. During the offseason, she put herself through a workout and diet regimen, losing 12 pounds, and added muscle and speed.
Auriemma said she transformed herself into the top center in the nation and is expected to be a high WNBA draft pick this spring.
She also excels in the classroom, among several student-athletes recognized this year for achieving a grade-point average above 3.0.
"From the day that I met her, she’s been one of the most impressive student-athlete’s I’ve ever been around, because of her work ethic both athletically and academically. And more importantly is the leadership that she has learned and brings to this team, both on and off the court," said athletic director Warde Manuel. "I wish I could clone her and bring her around as an example to show every student athlete at this university."
Hartley said the jokes, dancing and pranks Dolson plays on teammates has helped the team deal with the stress of expectations and bonded them into a championship unit.
"It’s hard to find people that are like Stefanie, who always have energy, are always excited, always up and just a little weird," Hartley said. "It keeps your team alive."
The defending champs, beating teams by an average of more than 37 points this season, are favored to win another NCAA championship in April in Nashville, Tenn.
Dolson received some criticism after last year’s visit to the White House, when she took the president up on a dare and put two fingers above his head during the photo shoot.
However, she’s not likely to be more reserved if they get a chance to go back this summer, she said.
"I challenged him to a dance-off when I was there last time, and he said if we come back he will," Dolson said. "So we shall see. I’m going to say, ‘Obama, we’re back, we’re having a dance-off!’"