- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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NEW YORK -- There's absolutely nothing any defender can do.
The made shot chart of Connecticut forward Breanna Stewart during Sunday afternoon's 80-47 win over No. 21 California looked like an entire team created it, like it was the work of a guard, a forward and a center. Of course, this is because Stewart's game contains a little bit of all those skills, plus also some increasing consistency and poise. When the 6-foot-4 sophomore swooped through the lane for a left-handed scoop just before the end of the first half, the ball kissing off the glass, the thousands of UConn fans inside Madison Square Garden offered cheers of appreciation.
They'd just watched their star play the entire first half and single-handedly outscore the Golden Bears (Stewart 21, Cal 20). She hit a jumper to open the UConn scoring, then a 3-pointer, then four free throws, then a short jumper from the right side, then a layup, then a jumper from the left side, followed by two more and then that clever little runner to finish the half. By the end of it, Stewart had scored from all ranges, using both hands.
"Being consistent is one of the things I wanted to focus on this year," Stewart said after the game. "I think my versatility is hard for defenses to guard. I was happy I got in the paint and posted up, Coach told me earlier I never post up. Not everyone has a long wingspan; it's helpful on offense and defense."
Stewart might be the only player in the country who can get off any shot she wants, whenever she wants it. Because of that ridiculous 7-1 wingspan and high release, no big defender is able to keep Stewart from scoring from the perimeter. And because of her size and soft touch on the block, no guard is able to keep her from scoring in the post.
After the game, UConn coach Geno Auriemma was asked where Stewart might fall on the list of all-time greatest players in Connecticut history.
"I was just commenting on this recently," Auriemma said. "We've never had anybody like her, and we've had some of the greatest ever to play college basketball. But we've never had anybody like her. Maya Moore was unique. Diana Taurasi was unique. Tina Charles was unique.
"But I don't think we've ever had anybody with the God-given abilities that Breanna has. She is just somebody who because you can't describe her, what she does, it makes it impossible for everybody else to match up."
It felt like Cal never really stood a chance. The Golden Bears faced a 20-point deficit at halftime that turned into 30 early in the second half. Stewart reached 29 points with 13 minutes, 2 seconds left in the game. Auriemma subbed her out at the next dead ball, and his top-ranked team didn't need her the rest of the way.
"I actually thought at halftime that we had done a pretty good job on everybody other than Stewart," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "There is nothing Breanna Stewart can't do; I think every WNBA team would take her first in the draft if she was coming out this year. Seeing her up close was even more impressive than seeing her on film."
The UConn-Cal game was actually supposed to be the marquee matchup of the Maggie Dixon Classic, which honors the former Army head coach who died suddenly in 2006 of complications from an enlarged heart. But it turns out the day's first game, a 72-70 win by St. John's over Texas A&M, provided the only tension of the afternoon. Red Storm guard Aliyyah Handford drove the middle of the lane and laid in the game winner with just 1.4 seconds left on the clock.
"This is really a great game for us and a great win in a special event honoring Maggie," St. John's coach Joe Tartamella said. "I talked to the team about that before the game and what this game means."
Before his team stepped onto the floor, Auriemma also mentioned how much he enjoys being a part of this event.
"We'll be here every year they'll have us," he said, then walked onto the Madison Square Garden court and watched his squad do its thing.
No player more than Stewart.
17dBonnie D. Ford