STORRS — With two minutes, 40 seconds remaining in another UConn women's rout Tuesday night, Stefanie Dolson left the Gampel Pavilion floor for the final time. Geno Auriemma briefly threw one arm around her as Dolson went down the line to slap hands with the rest of her teammates.
It was at that point that Dolson noticed the UConn fans standing and cheering. If Dolson is nothing else, she is the greatest stage performer in UConn women's history. She bent at her knees, threw up both arms, curled some of her fingers and began rocking up and down as if she was working the stage at a hip-hop concert.
Big Momma Stef was signing out.
But wait. She wasn't done. Dolson might have started her Gampel season by dancing up a storm at First Night, but she would leave on a much more sentimental note and certainly a much more regal one.
As she made her way to the locker room, she stopped and slowly raised both arms to the crowd of 4,245 in appreciation. And then, leave it to Stef, she started giving the Queen Elizabeth wave. You know, stiff hand, fingers together and just swivel the hand.
"I figured that was the best way," Dolson said.
This was Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis' game: 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Taking a lot of ribbing and giving almost as much back for being sharpshooter turned Andre Drummond and Chris Paul, KML turned in only the 14th triple-double in NCAA history.
Still, this was seniors Bria Hartley's and Dolson's night.
"I'm really proud of Bria and Stef," Auriemma said. "It has been an incredible four years. I don't want it to end. I'm sure they don't, either."
No, this was not a weepy, dramatic type of thing. This was not Senior Night. They have been there. They have done that. This was about taking care of the most serious business, rolling over St. Joe's 91-52 and advancing to the Sweet 16 for the 21st consecutive year.
The answers to the burning UConn questions have not been found in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament since the early Nineties. And Auriemma would have an interesting answer when asked about the 21 in a row.
"It really is hard to say, 'Well, this is how I feel about it,'" Auriemma said. "It's almost like, if you had asked, 'How would you feel about not going to the regionals?' that would probably be an easier question to answer."
"We've been really good for a long time and we've been great a lot of times and that's not easy to do. If it was, a lot more people would do it."
This is one of those years when UConn is great and the Huskies not only are looking for their ninth national title — which would eclipse Pat Summitt's record at Tennessee — they are looking for their fifth perfect season.
Still, one step at a time, and on this night Dolson tied Renee Montgomery for the UConn record of 148 career games started. Two more and she ties Kayla Pedersen of Stanford for the NCAA record of 150 starts. Brittney Griner had 148 at Baylor. Chamique Holdsclaw had 147 starts at Tennessee. You get the picture of what kind of rarefied air Dolson has reached.
"It's a number not a lot of people understand the impact it has," Dolson said. "It's something I'm extremely proud of, that I could instill trust in coach from the start and to stay consistent and healthy."
If UConn gets to the championship game, she'll have 152 starts.
"The thing about recruiting is, it's not an exact science," Auriemma said. "You go to the Co-op and buy a computer. You plug it in, you know what you're going to get all the time, not sometimes, all the time. You got out and recruit a kid, the kid shows up at UConn, you cross your fingers and you hope that either she is exactly what you thought she'd be or she becomes exactly what you hope she could become. It's not automatic it's going to happen."
"We took a look at Stefanie Dolson [in high school] and the only thing that didn't look right about her game was the way she looked. Everything else was right. She has a great mind. She can pass, catch, handle the ball, shoot it. Everything looked perfect except her. She didn't look like a perfect basketball player. We just took a chance and said, you know, maybe she has it in here that she wants to be that way."
Dolson came in as big girl, prone to gobbling McDonald's and brownies. She leaves as a fit powerhouse, best center in the nation, gobbling health food and rebounds. Through it all she has been incredibly durable. Dolson started 36 of 38 games as a freshman, all 38 as a sophomore before missing a game as a junior against St. John's with a stomach bug. She has started all 36 as a senior.
"There was a point in time in her sophomore year that she wasn't sure about all this," Auriemma said. "She had a great year for a freshman, ups and downs, whatever. When you're playing with Maya Moore, sometimes you can get away with things. As a sophomore, there was a lot of doubt in her mind. Can I do this? Can I be the player I want to be, you expect me to be?"
"It wasn't until the NCAA Tournament the end of her sophomore year that it clicked for her. She went home and said, 'OK, I know I can do this. I've just got to change a few things.' She came back as the best center in the country. She is one of the great success stories."
On this night, Dolson would settle for 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting, while Hartley had 20 on 7-for-12. When it was over, St. Joe's coach Cindy Griffin was asked what it would take to beat UConn this spring and she answered, "Them not showing up." She was joking. I think.
"Last season, we had such an up-and-down season, we didn't know what would happen," Dolson said. "Breanna [Stewart] and Bria stepped up in the tournament. This year is a definitely different feeling, mind-set. We know going into it as long as we play as well as we can no one can beat us."
Dolson didn't remember her first game at Gampel.
"Terrible memory," she said.
Asked her favorite Gampel memory, she said, "You've got to give me these questions in advance."
Oh, yeah, Big Momma Stef is a hoot.
"I lot of times when people ask me the question about how it was to play here I kind of deflect the question and just focus on playing basketball," Hartley said. "But now that this game is over, it's really a special moment. The four years have been awesome and I wouldn't want to do it with anybody other than Stef and my teammates."
The two seniors lost exactly two games in four years at Gampel. Together they are 140-11.
If UConn wins out, Dolson will tie Tiffany Hayes, Maya Moore and Kelly Faris with 154 games played. Hartley will have 153. Only Kalana Greene, who has the NCAA record at 157 because she redshirted after her knee injury, has more.
"This one wasn't Senior Night, with the ceremony, the emotions," Dolson said. "It was business. But at the end of the game, walking off and waving to all the fans, knowing that it was our last time here on the court, was just a special moment. Walking off it definitely was sad."
"It has been an honor for me to play here for four years. Looking back I wouldn't have had it any other way. The journey I've had has been perfect for me."
So she gave the royal wave. Yep, Big Momma Stef came in as the dancing queen. Who knew she'd leave as a real queen?