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Friday, January 4, 2013
Breanna Stewart exceeding the hype

By Michelle Smith

Compliments from Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma come neither easily nor frequently.

So when he said recently that freshman forward Breanna Stewart "has the opportunity to be a good as anyone we've ever brought here," it was high praise indeed.

When you are the top recruit in the country and choose to join Auriemma's program in Storrs, hype inevitably follows.

"I know when you play here, all eyes are on you," Stewart said. "I knew it wasn't going to be easy coming here, but I've embraced it."

Stewart, a versatile 6-foot-4 post player whose game has been compared to those of NBA Hall of Famer George Gervin and Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love, is on a path to become one of the biggest names in the women's game, the next "it" girl in line behind Skylar Diggins, Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner.

The 18-year-old North Syracuse, N.Y., native, the top high school recruit in the country a year ago, is off to a strong collegiate start. Stewart came out and scored more points in her first 10 games than any other player in Connecticut history. More than Rebecca Lobo. Or Diana Taurasi. Or Tina Charles. Or Maya Moore.

Stewart is second on the team in scoring (15.2 points per game), is tied for the lead in rebounding (6.7) and leads with 18 blocked shots. She has already scored at least 20 points five times and has been the Huskies' leading scorer or rebounder in eight of 12 games so far.

"She probably does have an awful lot of pressure thrown at her. ... She takes things to heart," Auriemma said. "She really, really wants to be good, and she gets really frustrated when she doesn't play well. She feels like she's letting people down. She's much different than you would think somebody with that kind of success would be like."

Stewart -- or "Stewie," as she is known to her teammates -- indeed comes off as humble and affable. Connecticut associate head coach Chris Dailey has called Stewart a "totally likable kid."

"I love her sense of humor. I love everything about her," Dailey said.

Huskies senior Kelly Faris said Stewart is a "goofball," but knows there's another side to her young teammate.

"There's a lot of pressure on [Stewart] right now from the outside, being that talented and getting the kind of minutes she's getting," Faris said. "There's a lot on her shoulders, and she's doing a good job of figuring out ways to handle that. The more she does it, the better she will be."

Stewart didn't begin her basketball career like many other girls, who tag along and duel older brothers at a local playground. She was tall and athletic, and her father, Brian, was the one who got her started.

"Every Saturday morning, we'd be down at the downtown YMCA," Stewart said. "He was the person I played one-on-one against all the time."

Stewart had the natural gifts of a star -- size, wingspan (71 inches), versatility and skill. And she worked harder than anyone else.

The trajectory of her young career has been steep. Already a stalwart with USA Basketball, she has played on five national teams, won four gold medals (2012 FIBA Americas Under-18 championship, 2011 FIBA Under-19 World Championship, 2010 FIBA Under-17 World Championship and 2009 FIBA Americas Under-16 Championship) and was named USA Basketball's female player of the year in 2011. She was also just the second high schooler to play with the U.S. team at the Pan American Games. To add "Olympian" to her résumé is hardly a stretch of the imagination (she is set to finish her collegiate career in 2016 ahead of the Rio Games).

Stewart's passport is already very full of stamps from around the world. That experience has prepared her for living far from home, but not necessarily for learning the ropes when it comes to being a local celebrity.

She and fellow freshman teammate Morgan Tuck headed to a mall near the Storrs campus last month for some holiday shopping.

"We were wearing our new UConn winter jackets, and we probably got stopped like 15 times," Stewart said. "Next time, maybe, we'll wear the old jackets. But I'm sure we will still get stopped."

I'm always trying to play my best and to play at [a high] level all the time with no drop-off."

-- Breanna Stewart

On the court, her game has evolved. In high school, she worked on her jump shot and trying to become more of a perimeter threat. Now, she is focusing on low-blocking, posting up and playing physically against bulkier defenders.

"I think people want to play me physical; I feel like people really go at me," Stewart said. "I appreciate the contact."

Mike Thibault, GM and head coach of the Washington Mystics, said Stewart doesn't fit traditional labels in terms of position, which may cement her place in the game as someone special.

"She is an athletic power forward who can step outside and make shots, but also can pass and runs very well," Thibault said. "She looks comfortable playing any of the three post positions and is obviously a great athlete.

"I don't see any freshman in the nation better than she is, by a lot. And there probably aren't many sophomores or juniors [better than Stewart], either."

Auriemma sees a mature game from a young player -- most of the time.

"She does things, I see her do things and I shake my head," Auriemma said. "Good and bad, I shake my head. But sometimes, you forget how young she is because of all of her experience."

Regardless, Stewart will be an important part of the Huskies' tournament run. Connecticut (12-0) last won the NCAA title in 2010, when Moore was leading the way.

"Obviously, I'm always trying to play my best and to play at that level all the time with no drop-off," Stewart said.