After leading UConn to a national title as a freshman, Breanna Stewart is ready for an encore performance
Breanna Stewart's list of achievements on the basketball court reads like those of a player who is finishing up a fabulous college career. She's an NCAA champion, a Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and a five-time gold medalist with USA Basketball.
But Stewart's most impressive feat is that she has accomplished all those things before finishing her sophomore year at UConn.
Stewart, a 6′ 4″ forward, has followed a standout freshman season by leading the Huskies to a 20–0 record and Number 1 ranking through January 25. The talented 19-year-old has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to basketball and could be next in line to become a Huskies legend.
Shrugging Off a Slump
Growing up in Syracuse, New York, Stewart was a star in basketball by the third grade. She was always tall for her age, so her coaches would put her in the post. But Stewart didn't want to be stuck there, so she worked on her ball handling and outside shooting. "It's something I'm happy I did because it expanded my game and made it harder for people to guard me," she says.
By the time she was an eighth-grader, Stewart was good enough to play on Cicero–North Syracuse High School's varsity team. Even against older opponents, she averaged 9.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 5.8 blocks a game that season. Over the course of the next four seasons Stewart blossomed into one of the best players in the nation, leading her team to state championships in 2011 and '12. As a senior, she averaged 26.4 points and 13.9 rebounds and was named the 2012 Gatorade Female High School Athlete of the Year.
Stewart accepted a scholarship to UConn and made a terrific first impression with 21 points, five rebounds, and four steals in her college debut. Her freshman season wasn't a breeze, though. Stewart missed two games last January with a sprained left ankle and then struggled with a scoring slump that drained her confidence. "When you have a game where you're not making shots and it continues to happen, it gets frustrating," she says.
Stewart finished the regular season averaging a modest 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds. Then, things turned around in the NCAA tournament. After breezing through their first four games, the Huskies were matched up against Notre Dame in the Final Four. The Irish had beaten UConn three times during the season, but Stewart made sure the Huskies would not lose again. She had 29 points, five rebounds, and four blocks to lead UConn to a 83–65 win.
She followed that performance with 23 points, nine boards, and three blocks in a 93–60 blowout of Louisville in the national championship game. Stewart became only the fourth freshman in the history of the women's tournament to win the Final Four Most Outstanding Player award.
No Joke — She's Good
Stewart has continued her strong play this season. Through January 25 she was leading the Huskies with 18.2 points per game and was second on the team with 8.1 rebounds. She was also dominating on defense with 2.8 blocks per game. Stewart is still getting used to the physical nature of playing in the post, but UConn coach Geno Auriemma sees improvement. "From where she is now to where she was 12 months ago, there's no comparison," he says. "This year there is a sense of, I know what's coming and I know how to deal with it."
"Last year everything was new, and this year I'm more comfortable with what the coaches are trying to do," adds Stewart. "I definitely feel like I've become more of a leader."
Stewart may be all business on the court, but she's a jokester off it. Last year, the girl nicknamed Stewie would pull pranks like hide in a teammate's closet and surprise her with pillow attacks. "She's goofy," point guard Moriah Jefferson says of Stewart. "Always playing jokes."
Stewart's personality and play have made her a crowd favorite. As she continues to improve and her list of accomplishments grows, the question that will enter fans' minds is how she compares with the other UConn greats from over the years. Winning one championship won't be enough to get her into that conversation. After all, success is expected at UConn — the women's program has won eight national titles and has had four undefeated seasons in the past 20 years. The school has produced some of the legends of college basketball, such as Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, and Maya Moore, who each won multiple national titles at UConn.
"Having a skill set and then being able to use that to accomplish some of the things that the great players at UConn have accomplished are two very different things," says Auriemma. "Does [Breanna] have the potential to become as good as some of the great ones that we have had? I think so. [But] a lot of people have won one national championship at UConn and a lot of people have won two. When you win three, we'll start talking."
Sounds like a challenge — one that Stewart is willing to take on with pleasure. "It's been a lot of fun," she says. "The fact that I still have a lot more years to play basketball is really exciting and motivating."
Photo: DAVID HAHN/ICON SMI