HARTFORD — He warned us that this was never about Stefanie Dolson trying to beat Brittney Griner. He warned us that this was always about UConn beating Baylor, about the help Dolson would have to get from her teammates.
"There won't be a bigger challenge for Stefanie this season," Geno Auriemma said before his UConn Huskies fell to No. 1 Baylor 76-70 Monday night at the XL Center. "But it's also not going to be Olajuwon vs. Patrick Ewing. It's not going to be Ralph Sampson vs. Patrick Ewing.
"We're not going to have two guys in the lane battling it out, fighting. That's not a fight Stefanie can win."
This always was about a contrast in styles, Auriemma kept saying over and over. In the end, the contrast showed up in so many ways — especially on the scoreboard. Griner was too big. Griner was too good. Griner was too great. After almost seeming to coast at times in the first half, Griner asserted herself in every way, pouring in 21 of her 25 points in the second half.
Griner was OK at basketball in the first half. She was tremendous at being a winner in the second. She was intent. She was determined. And UConn, which had trapped so well in the first half, did a lousy job in the second.
"There's nothing Stefanie can change what Brittney Griner is going to do in the lane," Auriemma had said. "Nothing she can do to affect that single-handedly. She has to do something at the other end to compensate for that. Whatever we give up on one end we've got to get on the other end."
On the defensive end, the Huskies gave up only four points in the first half to the 6-8 Griner. She was 2-for-9 and every time she touched the ball one or two other UConn players collapsed on her to help out Dolson. They trapped. They rotated beautifully. They should have been up 15 at the half, Auriemma said. They were up 29-26. Griner did a good job finding open cutters to the hoop, and her three assists in the first 20 minutes would have been double if the Bears hadn't missed so many shots.
Dolson, meanwhile, out-rebounded Griner 7-5 in the first half, matching her four points, although she did turn the ball over three times.
It changed so dramatically in the second half.
"We trapped Griner every time in the first half," Auriemma said. "In the second half we stopped trapping for some reason. During one timeout I asked did someone call a timeout on their own and say let's not trap anymore? No. So why aren't we? So the next four possessions we still didn't trap. I just told them I can't help you now. We're not mature enough for whatever reason. We should be. We're not.
"I thought Stefanie played great. She just didn't get any help from anybody other than Kaleena [Mosqueda-Lewis] in the second half. You're not going to guard Griner for 40 minutes by yourself. In the second half, she got no help. And when we did help we left other guys open because we didn't rotate. Everything thing we did right in the first half we didn't do right in the second. I though Stef was spectacular."
Was the matchup as physical as it looked?
"Yes," Dolson said. "We both are both pretty physical. We knew it was going to be a battle."
This game had so much to do about spacing. The space Dolson could help create by coming out to the high post, setting screens, moving the ball, getting her teammates open for threes, stepping back and hitting some shots. It also had to do with the space between Dolson's ears. There is no doubt that Dolson has improved incredibly during her time at UConn. She's in much better shape. She also is so much more confident.
Sometimes it's best to just keep your mouth shut and listen to the college kids. So there was Matt Stypulkoski of the Daily Campus, UConn's student newspaper, talking to Dolson on Sunday.
"Two years ago, the day before the Baylor game, I was in your [statistics] class and asked you what your game plan was to cover Brittney and you said, 'I'm going to try to foul her every time she touches the ball,'" Stypulkoski said to Dolson. "I have to think your game plan is a little bit more nuanced this year."
Dolson, a free spirit given to impromptu singing and dancing and spontaneous giggles, broke into a huge laugh.
"Listen," Dolson said. "I'm much older and more mature. The game plan definitely is not to foul her."
Box scores and play-by-play sheets do not lie. They can be cruel. Two years ago in the UConn win at the XL Center, Dolson picked up two fouls in the opening 3:06. During that time she also missed a layup and turned the ball over twice. She finished with two points in 12 minutes. Last year in the loss in Waco, Texas, Dolson picked up two quick fouls, too. She scored six points in 25 minutes. Griner, of course, poured in 25.
"She finished her shots in the second half," Dolson said. "She did a great job of getting into position. I guess we didn't make the right decision on defense. The first half we did a great job double-teaming her. And really making her take tough shots. The second half we doubled off the wrong guy. They got too many layups."
Before the game, Dolson said: "I watched a couple of old clips of us against Baylor. I'm like, 'Why? Why did you do that?' It's definitely immaturity. I think not being ready to play. I've definitely made changes. My mentality, being more confident, I know that I've grown a lot.
And she did at times. In fact, she knocked down a big three with just under nine minutes left in the game. All of 11 of Dolson's points were from the outside or the free throw line. She shot 4-of-13. She stayed out of foul trouble until near the end when she picked her fourth foul with 65 seconds left. Griner hit both free throws to give her 25 points for the game and 3,000 in her career.
By that the point, she had thrown Dolson down by the arm for a flagrant foul early in the second half.
"I'm sure it was heat of the moment," Dolson said. "It was intense and physical."
Riled after the foul, Griner punished the Huskies in the final 16 minutes. With Dolson out of gas in the final minutes, Auriemma turned to a big lineup with Morgan Tuck, Kiah Stokes and Dolson.
Twenty-one points on the road in the second half, against UConn in front a sellout crowd of 16,294 … wow.
"I'm proud of the way I played tonight," Dolson said. "Two years ago and last year, I couldn't say I was happy with the way I played. I did my best tonight, with how physical it was. She's a great player. She's going to score. The fact we were able to hold her to a lot less in the first half was awesome. But I can't be satisfied with myself."
And she should be even less satisfied with the lack of help she got from her teammates in the second half.