- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- In one corner of Connecticut's locker room, senior Heather Buck played a game of UNO with three teammates. The players were still wearing their uniforms, legs crossed, each holding a handful of cards, occupying themselves as they've learned to do.
Across the room, a ring of media encircled freshman Breanna Stewart, the reporters peppering her with questions about her 21-point performance, about how it feels to help the Huskies advance to the Final Four -- their sixth consecutive -- next weekend in New Orleans.
Between these two groups wandered some familiar faces -- guard Caroline Doty, forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, center Stefanie Dolson -- who were eating chicken fingers and teasing Stewart, happily distracting their younger teammate by occasionally calling out things such as, "Breanna is the best player ever!" and "We're no good! We can't talk!"
This is what it's like to be the Connecticut Huskies. This is what it's like to be a team that can make Kentucky, a very good No. 2 seed, look incompetent in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament. This is what it's like an hour after a runaway victory -- final tally, 83-53 -- that clinched the Huskies their 14th Final Four berth in program history.
"Last year we played Catch Phrase," said Buck, referring to the word-guessing game. "Sometimes we play Pictionary. You know, there's a lot of time to kill after games."
Considering that Stewart was still talking to the media nearly 70 minutes after the final buzzer, you can understand why some of the Huskies were busy playing a kids' card game. As Buck shuffled the colorful deck, Stewart told the media from her corner of the locker room, "I think the freshman thing is over. There is no more excuse -- 'Oh, she's a freshman.' "
In fact, the only time Stewart looked like a freshman Monday night was after the game. She was giggling on the walk to the postgame press conference and spent much of the time on stage poking UConn coach Geno Auriemma to get his attention, then laughing about something.
But on the court? That was a different matter entirely. Stewart looked like one of the best, most mature, most versatile players remaining in this tournament. She made her first basket not even 90 seconds into the game and finished with 21 points on 8-for-14 shooting from the floor. What was even more impressive was her defense. Stewart recorded three blocks, the last of which came with 11 seconds on the clock, a go-go-gadget-arm swat that reminded everyone in attendance of the agility possessed by the 6-foot-4 forward.
"This game was a prime example of what she can bring and how great she can be," Doty said afterward.
As for the game itself, that was decided in the final 10 minutes of the first half. Kentucky took a 23-22 lead on a free throw by guard A'dia Mathies with 9:08 remaining. But just a few seconds after that, Doty drained a 3-pointer from the left corner, which would be the first basket in a ridiculous 26-3 UConn run that spanned the remainder of the first half. The only points Kentucky managed in this stretch came on a 3-pointer from the right wing, the ball inadvertently banking off the glass. The Huskies jogged to the locker room leading 48-26, then led by as many as 36 points in the second half.
And here's all you need to know about that second half: The most dramatic moment came midway through, when the in-arena Jumbotron displayed highlights of Louisville's epic upset of top-seeded Baylor.
Obviously nothing quite as compelling was happening inside Webster Bank Arena, so the 8,594 in attendance -- that number being equivalent to the building's capacity -- clapped and cheered while watching replays of the shots that toppled Goliath on Sunday night. This moment stood out specifically because the outcome between UConn-Kentucky had been decided more than an hour before the final buzzer. "We played great during the key points of the game," Auriemma said. "I'm proud of these guys. They've become a really good team in this last month."
Thanks in large part to Stewart. Yes, Stewart's play was eye-opening Monday night, but it hasn't been that way all season. She even explained afterward that she had a bit of a come-to-Jesus meeting with herself in the last couple weeks of the season, trying to pull herself out of a mental funk. She pointed to the team's Feb. 18 home loss to Baylor as the low point. In that game, the highly touted freshman played only seven minutes and didn't score.
"My confidence wasn't as high as it is right now," Stewart said. "I'm pretty sure my teammates were relying on me to contribute against Baylor, and I didn't. That upset me. When you're not happy with how you're playing, it can be a downward spiral. I think I needed to get out of my own head."
Whatever she did, it's working.
And on Monday night, in the postgame locker room, while Buck dealt another hand of UNO, a reporter asked Stewart a follow-up question: Is this the player you expected to be?
"Yeah," Stewart said. "Now I feel like I'm a player who's able to be relied on by my teammates."
Yes, she is. And that's a scary thing for whoever else makes it to New Orleans.
18dBonnie D. Ford