Saluting top seniors in Nashville


NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- After Sunday's Final Four games, the women's college basketball world will say goodbye to some seniors who have grown into some of the sport's most identifiable names. Their careers are full of accomplishment. All six have achieved huge personal and team successes. They have their strengths on the court and some "weaknesses" off it, which are much more fun to discover. At least four won't achieve the ultimate finish to a career, but all are worth celebrating and smiling about a little, too (listed alphabetically, by team).

Stefanie Dolson, Connecticut

Strengths: The 6-foot-5 center excels in areas that aren't typically in a box score. Even as a center, she's more facilitator than scorer, and defensively, Dolson is more even keel than highlight reel. Bria Hartley labeled Dolson the best screener on the team. If that skill could be measured, the sturdy Dolson would likely rank among the best in the country. Her career assist numbers are a modest 2.1 per game, but Dolson is outstanding at making the pass that leads to the pass that becomes a basket. To call Dolson a point-center would be overstating her role, but she has been the fulcrum of the UConn offense for the better part of three seasons.

Weakness: The comedic stylings of Stefanie Dolson trump Stefanie Dolson the player. "She gets asked about her personality all the time," junior teammate Kiah Stokes said. There's dancing, sarcasm, even brazenness. She gave "bunny ears" to POTUS during UConn's championship visit to the White House. Who does that?

Sometimes she just gets too carried ... oh, never mind. Who's kidding who? Dolson's sense of humor and sense of self is great. She is funny and it detracts from nothing. Heck, even the rabbit ears made us giggle, right? Look at Breanna Stewart's face. She couldn't have been the only one laughing.

Career highlights: Dolson's development as player, both physically and mentally, and as a person -- yes, even the comedy -- will long be what she is remembered for in Storrs. Much was asked of her, stepping into the shoes of Tina Charles as a freshman, and while at times rough, Dolson never wilted from the challenge. Like Charles, Dolson won a championship -- and did something Charles never did: record a triple-double. Her best individual game came earlier this season against Oregon, marking just the second triple-double in UConn history (Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis recorded the third in the second round of the NCAA tourney).

What's at stake: At UConn, it's all about championships, and Dolson has a chance to be the center, and a centerpiece, on the record-setting ninth title in school history.

Bria Hartley, Connecticut

Strengths: The 5-8 senior guard's game is based on a fearlessness, which has led to a solid and consistent career. Her first game at UConn was an 18-point, four-assist performance, and she hasn't really looked back. Hartley's greatest strength is that she really doesn't have a sizeable weakness.

Weakness: Her teammates would agree with that above statement, but only if the topic is about basketball. Hartley's game might make sweet music, but, apparently, she doesn't. To sing is just not her thing.

"Sometimes she believes that she's really good, but she's not," Stokes revealed. "We tell her all the time that she's bad and she thinks we are kidding, but we're not."

It has been confirmed that Hartley will not be performing the national anthem. But hey, Beyonce can't ball, either.

Career highlights:

Hartley arrived in Storrs just as the Notre Dame-UConn rivalry was really igniting. In her first home game against the Irish in 2011, Hartley scored 29 points in a 21-point Connecticut win. A year later, she played all 45 minutes and scored 25 points in a loss to the Irish. Hartley's biggest moments have come in some big games, and that is exactly the opportunity she has once again in Nashville.

What's at stake: Simply by their birth year and a decision to head to Storrs to continue their educations and basketball careers, Hartley and Dolson are indelibly linked. Point guard and post for the most well-known women's college basketball program in the country for most of their careers, they have a chance to go out on top much like Charles did in 2010 and Renee Montgomery did in 2009.

Alyssa Thomas, Maryland

Strengths: Thomas averaged 7.3 rebounds as a freshman, and that constitutes a bad year in her outstanding career. She will go down as one of the greatest rebounding forwards in the game's recent history and will finish second to Crystal Langhorne all time at Maryland. But it's Thomas' all-around talents that got her compared to LeBron James. Thomas is rebounder, defender, facilitator and finisher all rolled into one, a true 94-foot player.

Weakness: While it's difficult to find a hole in Thomas' game, off the court she has a kryptonite: small dogs. Thomas is petrified of a Chihuahua that is owned by a friend of senior teammate and roommate Lauren Mincy.

"Look at Alyssa and her Incredible Hulk stature," Mincy said. "You wouldn't think she would be scared of a little dog, but she runs into her room and locks the door."

Any chance Notre Dame can come up with a new mascot by Sunday night?

Career highlights: The résumé begins impressively with three ACC Player of the Year awards, three first-team WBCA All-America selections and becoming Maryland's all-time leading scorer for men and women. In a career full of mega-games (and 66 double-doubles), the 6-2 Thomas saved one of the best for an opportune time. Without her career-high 33 points and 13 rebounds, Maryland might not have reached the ultimate Thomas career highlight: the Final Four.

What's at stake: Her individual legacy was secured some time ago, but a national championship, or even just an appearance in a title game (think Angel McCoughtry at Louisville) would elevate Thomas into Terrapin legendary status. Kristi Toliver, Langhorne and Marissa Coleman will always be remembered for their improbable championship run. To do it as a senior in her last game would put Thomas at the top of the Maryland list.

Natalie Achonwa, Notre Dame

Strengths: From the moment the Irish set foot in Indianapolis in 2011 for the first of their four straight Final Fours, it was clear Achonwa was a leader -- or would soon be one. Just a role player at the time, she was glib and charismatic, a program caretaker in waiting. The rest of the world got to see more of that this season. Achonwa's skills as a post player are obvious. Her talents as the voice and face of Notre Dame women's basketball in 2014 might have become even more evident in the moments and days following her devastating knee injury that will keep her off the court for the Final Four. Her presence remains vital.

Weakness: The 6-3 forward was the consummate leader even in the moments right after injuring her knee and said all the right things even in the immediate aftermath. Well, almost all the right things. She might need a refresher course in the finer points of the family viewing hour.

With her adrenaline racing -- and in her attempts to keep her teammates fired up and focused after her injury -- Achonwa got back on her feet and fired off a word or two not exactly fit for the PG-13 demographic.

Career highlights: The disappointment of the knee injury is only magnified by the reality that Achonwa was playing the best basketball of her career in the NCAA tournament. Her 25 points against Arizona State in the round of 32 was one point shy of a career high. The 19 points and 15 rebounds she produced against Baylor in the Elite Eight was the best performance in a big game she had ever had in an Irish uniform.

What's at stake: While Achonwa will not be on the floor in Nashville, a Notre Dame championship would belong to her as much as anyone else in the Irish family. With four trips to the game's ultimate stage, Achonwa's legacy is already cemented. Being part of an undefeated national champion (albeit a hobbled one at this point) as the Irish's unquestioned leader, she should be remembered among the first few names in Notre Dame lore.

Kayla McBride, Notre Dame

Strengths: The 5-11 guard is a shooter -- an exceptional shooter and also a versatile one, a skill that has made her the perfect fit in Muffet McGraw's offensive scheme. McBride has made 47.4 percent of her field goal attempts in her four years and 50 percent of her 3-point attempts in three NCAA tournaments. Never afraid to take a big shot or have the ball in critical moments, McBride is the ideal player for spotlights like the Final Four.

Weakness: This might sound strange for someone who plays basketball at her level and spends much of her time sprinting around screens, but McBride hates to run. She puts aside her disdain for movement, of course, because it's the only way to be fit for the kind of basketball player she is. But if it hadn't been for hoops, McBride might never have put one foot in front of the other.

Career highlights: Nothing tops playing in a Final Four each of your collegiate seasons, but emerging from the shadow of Skylar Diggins to earn first-team All-America honors is the validation whip cream on the ice cream sundae that is McBride's career. Her big-game abilities were also confirmed with a 23-point performance against UConn in the Big East tournament final, propelling McBride to the Most Outstanding Player trophy as a sophomore. Two of the three biggest scoring games of her career came this season in back-to-backs against Duke and North Carolina, the games that solidified that the ACC belonged to the Irish even in their first season in the conference.

What's at stake: Without fellow senior Achonwa on the floor with her, it might not feel quite the same in the early moments Sunday night against Maryland. But if McBride and Jewell Loyd can deliver for two more games, this Notre Dame team will go down as one of the all-time greats.

Chiney Ogwumike, Stanford

Strengths: As immensely productive as the 6-4 forward has been throughout her career on both ends of the floor (her defense might be even better than her offense), her self-awareness and unselfishness might be her greatest attributes. Ogwumike knows what she is as a basketball player and knows the importance of great teammates. "Every game, she is consistent with her effort, with her leadership, with her positivity," junior Bonnie Samuelson said.

Weakness: She's a rebounder. She's a scorer. She's a defender. She's a leader. She writes songs. She hangs out with major political dignitaries. Ogwumike can do it all. Well, not quite. Ogwumike cannot swim -- or least, not well.

"During our offseason swim workouts, while most of us were doing the swimming, Chiney spent all of her time on the floatie side," point guard Amber Orrange said.

Part of that self-awareness enters into Ogwumike's own assessment of her aquatic skills: "I can get from Point A to Point B," she said, "but I don't know if what you see you can call true swimming," she said.

Ogwumike might be the mayor of Nerd City, but Missy Franklin she is not.

Career highlights: As great as Thomas' career has been, Ogwumike is the most individually accomplished player in this Final Four. This season, while getting the Cardinal to Nashville largely on her back, she recorded 26 double-doubles, became the Pac-12's all-time leading scorer and rebounder, won the conference's defensive player of the year award for a third time and captured her second Pac-12 Player of the Year award. Perhaps no one game epitomized Ogwumike's uncanny ability to produce than the 32-point, 20-rebound, three-block performance against the sizeable front line of Tennessee four days before Christmas.

What's at stake: Stanford has had great players. Stanford has had great teams. Stanford has been here before. Plenty. What Stanford hasn't done is win a national championship since 1992. One in Nashville would likely put Ogwumike at the top of the list of all-time Cardinal greats.