- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- Breanna Stewart walked down the hallway, her long arms draped at her sides, a smile dancing on the corner of her lips.
She had just played the game of her young life, clearly the most unstoppable player on a court filled with players who are usually unstoppable, and now she was the last to return to her team's locker room after her team's biggest win of the season. She high-fived everyone she passed: the managers, the student trainers, anyone lingering in the hallway outside Connecticut's locker room who was willing to put out a hand. Then the door closed behind Stewart, which muffled the roar of her teammates who had been waiting inside.
Make no mistake, Stewart is the main reason UConn is playing for its eighth national championship in program history. The freshman scored from everywhere on the floor, dropping 29 points in an 83-65 win over Notre Dame, a team that usually could do no wrong against the Huskies. UConn will now face Louisville in Tuesday's NCAA title game (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET) after the Cardinals defeated Cal, 64-57 in Sunday's other national semifinal.
Stewart's line on the stat sheet reads like someone made it up. She went 10-for-16 from the floor, 4-for-5 from beyond the arc and 5-for-5 from the line. She scored 12 points in the first half, 17 in the second, and tacked on five rebounds and four blocks.
"She played awesome," Notre Dame senior guard Skylar Diggins said. "She knocked some big shots down, and she's playing with so much confidence. It's not the first time you've seen her play like that in this tournament. She just scored in so many different ways tonight."
Stewart's 3-pointer from the top of the key with 10:55 remaining gave UConn a 56-43 lead and felt like the dagger bucket. Of course, the killer score might have come with 5:31 on the clock, when Stewart drove middle -- her long, looping strides gobbling up court -- and lifted the ball over the rim to extend UConn's lead to nine, sucking the air out of Notre Dame's final rally of the night. "This is how she plays basketball," UConn senior guard Kelly Faris said. "So you guys are just starting to get a glimpse of what we knew she had."
Of course, Stewart's stellar play didn't appear to satisfy Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma, who busied himself screaming at Stewart during the game's final seconds. Apparently the 6-foot-4 forward failed to defend the paint the way Auriemma had instructed. "Stewy!" he called to his star freshman while UConn prepared to take a free throw. "What are you doing? Stay in the lane and block a shot, will ya?"
Stewart turned away from Auriemma near midcourt and said something to teammate Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who did her part with 16 points. "Stewy!" Auriemma called out again. "Get in the lane!" So Stewart started walking back toward the other end of the court, beginning to realize that Auriemma wasn't offering instruction for later in the game, but demanding an immediate shift in placement. "Keep going!" Auriemma yelled. "All the way -- in the lane." Stewart kept walking until both feet were in the painted zone.
But Auriemma had very little to complain about Sunday night. His team played relentless defense from tipoff to final buzzer. Aside from a rash of turnovers midway through the second half, the Huskies could not have played much better. Led by Stewart's efficient offensive performance, UConn finished the night shooting 46.8 percent from the floor, 42.9 percent from distance and 90.5 percent from the free throw line. And on defense, the Huskies made Notre Dame's star tandem of Diggins (10 points) and Kayla McBride (16 points) look average. Although the two combined for 26 points, they took 35 shots to get there.
"I really believe that for 40 minutes, we competed and we played about as hard as we're capable of playing, and I couldn't be happier for this team," Auriemma said. "I couldn't be more proud of them -- this is really, really, really rewarding. We've come a long way."
Yes, the Huskies have. And so much of it has to do with Stewart. The freshman hit a rough patch in February, the low point coming after a scoreless game during the team's loss to Baylor on Feb. 18. But since then, she's been locked in for every second she's on the floor. She even recognizes the small mistakes she makes -- such as when she failed to provide help-side defense to freshman teammate Moriah Jefferson, who got posted up by Diggins on the left block late in the second half. Diggins gained position on the smaller Jefferson and quickly scored over her right shoulder. On the next play, while Stewart was walking to the free throw line after being fouled on a putback score, she said to Jefferson, "I have to help you on that; that's my fault."
"She's gotten stronger mentally," Auriemma said. "I think she's gotten stronger emotionally. Stewy really takes things to heart and she puts a lot of pressure on herself. … After the end of the regular season, there was a renewed almost kind of, 'I'm not going to allow myself to feel like this anymore.'"
So something has clicked with these Huskies. A month ago, they looked disorganized at the end of losses to the Fighting Irish. On Sunday, they looked unbeatable. And, as Auriemma walked from the locker room to the postgame press conference, he said -- tongue-in-cheek, of course -- "I guess I became a genius in the last month."
Nah, he hasn't. But Stewart has.
17dBonnie D. Ford