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|UConn's leading scorer, Breanna Stewart, has helped lead the Huskies to a 34-0 record.|
This ought to send a chill up the spine of all Connecticut opponents. Breanna Stewart was named the American Athletic Conference tournament MVP after the Huskies won the title, and then talked about how she needed to get better.
"There are so many ways I can improve," the sophomore forward from Syracuse, N.Y., said. "That means ... just not getting complacent, and wanting to be the best player I can be."
You can imagine opposing coaches desperately saying, "Hey, Stewie, it's OK to get a little complacent! You're really great already! Ease up! Don't push yourself so hard."
Stewart is espnW's National Player of the Year, as she is living up to all the hype that surrounded her entry into college. Stewart has, indeed, been as good as advertised.
In her freshman season, it seemed the one thing that got in Stewart's way at times was Stewart herself. But by Final Four time, that impediment was gone as she led Connecticut to its eighth NCAA title. This year, she has been largely unstoppable for undefeated UConn.
"It's hard to guard so much versatility," Stewart said in reference to the Huskies as a whole. But it's also true about Stewart individually.
At 6-foot-4, she has guard and forward skills in equal measure, and it's difficult for any defender to measure up to her, inside or outside.
She's averaging 19.7 points, while shooting 49.8 percent from the field overall (37 percent from 3-point range). She's also at 77.1 percent from the line and has 107 assists. So she is going to burn you one way or another when UConn has the ball.
Stewart's prodigious offensive prowess might still be a bit ahead of her defense, but the latter is definitely catching up. She has 94 blocked shots this year, and she hasn't fouled out of a game yet in college. She is also averaging 8.1 rebounds.
And while she seems to regularly churn out spectacular plays, Stewart also has become consistent and dependable with the so-called routine parts of the game.
"I feel like I started ramping up in the Big East tournament last year; I felt like I was playing differently," Stewart said. "And then, going into the NCAA tournament, I was becoming more confident and playing the kind of basketball I wanted to."
That has just continued throughout this season. -- espnW's Mechelle Voepel
|Diamond DeShields arrived at North Carolina with a mountain of expectations -- and thrived.|
The numbers alone make a compelling case that Diamond DeShields is the nation's best freshman.
And numbers don't begin to do DeShields justice. The numbers only confirm that she's a star; they aren't the reason for it.
At 18 points per game, DeShields ranks sixth nationally among freshmen in scoring. Two of those ahead of her play in low-major conferences and a third played in the stat-skewing system run by now former Oregon coach Paul Westhead. Among comparable situations, only Washington's Kelsey Plum and Georgia Tech's Kaela Davis scored more. Both merit consideration for national honors, along with Baylor's Nina Davis, Oregon State's Sydney Wiese, South Carolina's Alaina Coates and seemingly half a dozen players in the newly precocious Big Ten.
Some were less prolific than DeShields, others less efficient, but all were in the neighborhood.
What no other freshman can claim is a place as the face of a team with a mountain of expectations, limited veteran leadership, and the uncertainty and upheaval that accompanied a Hall of Fame coach's leukemia diagnosis.
DeShields didn't just manage those challenges; she thrived amidst them.
There were ups and downs -- we are talking about freshmen here -- but who can forget DeShields feigning a yawn as Duke students unleashed a full dose of Cameron craziness in her direction, and then backing it up with 30 points in a win?
North Carolina beat SEC regular-season champion South Carolina and Big Ten tournament champion Nebraska. UNC beat Duke twice, NC State twice and split a pair of games against Maryland. We give credit to Shoni Schimmel, Chiney Ogwumike, Alyssa Thomas and other All-Americans when teammates follow their lead in wins like those. Don't we have to do the same with DeShields, when it's clear the Tar Heels follow hers? -- espnW's Graham Hays
|Muffet McGraw and the Irish beat Tennessee, Duke (three times), UNC, Maryland and Penn State.|
How many times in the past few seasons have we assumed that it would be something of a rebuilding year for Notre Dame? That the loss of a key player or three would cause the Irish to take a step back, take their time, and come back to the big stage in due time.
All the time, it turns out, is due time for Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw.
The Irish are in a conversation that didn't seem possible a year ago, one that was going to begin and end with Connecticut, begin and end with a trophy presentation.
But McGraw and her team have become a major talking point.
The Irish are 32-0 heading into the NCAA tournament, undefeated in the regular season for the first time in program history. They defeated 11 ranked opponents this season -- 10 by double digits -- and beat six top-10 teams. They have a legitimate claim to be the tournament's overall No. 1 seed.
Even with four returning starters, McGraw led the Irish through a season of transition, no doubt. Four-time All-American Skylar Diggins, the program's defining player the past four years, was gone. A freshman point guard would be stepping in to fill her shoes. Notre Dame was entering a new conference -- and not just any conference, but a loaded ACC that includes Duke, Maryland and a young but intriguing North Carolina team.
Turned out to be no sweat for Notre Dame or McGraw, who was named the ACC Coach of the Year, the sixth such honor of her Hall of Fame career in five different leagues.
Notre Dame became the first undefeated team in the ACC since Duke in 2002-03, winning the conference race by four games.
In the process of winning every game they've played, the Irish have built a bevy of impressive statistical numbers -- ranking among the top 10 in seven NCAA categories, including field goal percentage, scoring offense, scoring margin, 3-point percentage and assists.
McGraw weathers, inspires, motivates and expects her Irish to not only hold their place among the nation's elite, but elevate to new levels of excellence. That is the mark of a coach of the year. -- espnW's Michelle Smith