By JOHN ALTAVILLA, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
8:18 PM EST, March 1, 2014
STORRS — Senior days come and go, leaving a trail of tears, nostalgia and statistical minutiae in their wake. But they all have something else in common aside from emotional release.
When they are over, they leave behind others to carry the aspirations and traditions into the future.
So it was again Saturday at Gampel Pavilion when the No. 1 Huskies said their ceremonial goodbyes to Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley, two of the greatest All-Americans in their history.
"We celebrated two kids who took a big risk coming here," coach Geno Auriemma said. "We'd won 78 straight when they got here, and they were going to start at point guard and center. You better figure it out and figure it out quickly."
In pregame ceremonies, their numbers were added to the Huskies of Honor, cementing their memories for senior days to come, even though they will be back at Gampel in three weeks for the first two rounds of NCAA play.
Next was the business of the day, the game against Rutgers. And that is when sophomores Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson and junior Kiah Stokes stepped to their own stage, one that grows exponentially larger every time they lace up their Nikes.
Stewart's assault on AAC Player of the Year and first-team All-American honors took another big step when she scored 20 points and had 10 rebounds to help lead UConn to a 72-35 win over the No. 24 Scarlet Knights before a sellout of 10,167.
Jefferson, the nation's breakout star, added nine points, five rebounds and four assists with her trademark flash and drive.
And Stokes, who will step into Dolson's starting post position next season, added 11 rebounds and three blocked shots in 22 minutes.
Of course, just for good measure, Hartley enhanced her day with 20 points, her fourth straight 20-point game. Dolson added 10 rebounds, including the 1,000th of her career.
"That's the way it is supposed to be on senior night," Auriemma said. "You are supposed to play well and have a good time. And they did."
Yes, it was a good day for the past, present and future for the eight-time national champions.
"It was just such a special environment and to be able to share it with Bria, to end it together, was something we will never forget," Dolson said.
The win was the 36th straight for the Huskies (30-0, 17-0 AAC), the third-longest streak in program history. It's UConn's 19th 30-win season. And it sets up Monday's AAC regular season championship game at Louisville, which kept its title hopes alive with a win Saturday at Cincinnati.
If the Huskies win Monday, they are the AAC's first regular season champ and No. 1 seed in the tournament that begins Friday at Mohegan Sun. If they lose, the title will be shared and the first seed determined by a coin flip shortly after the game.
The Scarlet Knights (21-7, 12-5), playing their last regular season game against UConn before leaving for the Big Ten next season, were 16-for-62 from the field, 0-for-5 from three. UConn outrebounded them 49-31, and sent them to the free throw line just eight times.
Betnijah Laney led Rutgers with 14 points. Freshman Tyler Scaife had eight points, all in the first half, and shot 4-for-16. But sophomore forward Kahleah Copper spent the game in a walking boot to protect a turf toe on her left foot. She scored 20 against UConn on Jan. 19
"We just sputtered along on offense," said Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer.
There was never any ambiguity about Saturday. The Huskies beat Rutgers by 30 in Piscataway and never trailed in this one. They took their first 10-point lead with 15:31 to play in the first half on a basket by Stewart, who scored 11 of UConn's first 18 points.
It was also a basket by Stewart that jumped the lead to 20 (30-10) with 7:05 to play in the half.
"We executed the plan pretty well," Dolson said.
Hartley and Jefferson also played big roles in the first 20 minutes, a half distinguished by the 1,000th rebound of Dolson's career and the 251st blocked shot by the Huskies, setting a single-season program record.
Hartley led the Huskies with 14 first-half points, and her two straight three-pointers helped increase the lead to 26-8. And Jefferson used her swiftness to score nine points and four assists in the half.
"You want to play well every night, but especially on senior night," Hartley said. "It's a big moment, the spotlight is on you; you really want to shine."
Just as significant, however, was the return of Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. The junior missed the past four games with mononucleosis. But she was back in the starting lineup and, after missing her first three shots, she scored a layup after a Stewart miss and drained a three within a two-minute span in the final four minutes of the half for her five points.
She finished with seven points in 27 minutes, shooting 3-for-10.
"I should have told her this wasn't baseball," Auriemma joked. "You don't get in the Hall of Fame by going 3-for-10."
Copyright © 2014, The Hartford Courant