- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- Breanna Stewart's freshman-ness is never very far from the surface.
From the moment she took the microphone after being announced as the Final Four's most outstanding player and good-naturedly told her chatty teammates to "shut up" on national television, to later when she stuck out her tongue at the media as she left the postgame news conference and then gave coach Geno Auriemma an awkward hug as she departed.
Off the court, she is a shrugging, eye-rolling, fidgety, lanky, goofy 18-year-old kid.
On the court, she could be something we've never seen before.
Stewart became the first freshman since 1987 to win most outstanding player honors in the Final Four after another stellar performance (23 points, nine rebounds, three assists, three blocks, three steals) propelled Connecticut to a 93-60 win over Louisville and the program's eighth national championship Tuesday night.
She earns membership to an exclusive club. Tonya Edwards won MOP honors as a freshman in 1987 for Tennessee, Clarissa Davis for Texas in 1986 and Cheryl Miller for USC in 1983.
But the award is not the story; it's the exclamation point.
Stewart is the story, the way she has played over these past three weeks, transforming from an unsure but supremely talented young player into an unstoppable, unguardable force. She scored 52 points in this Final Four, and hit seven of her eight 3-pointers and 61 percent of her shots overall.
In bottom-line terms, "Stewie," as her teammates (and now the rest of the world will) call her, took Connecticut from a team that was looking for answers after the disappointment of the Big East tournament to a runaway, no-doubt-about-it champion.
"I don't think people understand how much we needed her to get to this point," senior guard Kelly Faris said. "If we didn't have her, we wouldn't be here. And we all know that, and I hope she knows that. If she didn't turn it around and step it up like she has -- I mean, we have a freshman that's the MVP of the national championship game. I'm glad she's on our side."
Stewart finished with 104 points in her first NCAA tournament, the most by a freshman since 2000, her 23-point effort against the Cardinals the most by a Connecticut freshman in a title game.
Not since Miller, or Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw in 1996 or Maryland's Kristi Tolliver in 2006, has a first-year player had this kind of effect on a championship run.
"What did she do for us?" junior center Stefanie Dolson asked. "She did everything."
And to think, two months ago, this was a kid having a serious crisis of confidence, questioning herself while she tried to find her place in the college game, scuffling in front of the country as a member of the nation's most-watched program.
"I was thinking too much," Stewart said. "I just needed to go out and play better."
Auriemma said that when he saw Stewart as a high school player and with USA Basketball -- playing with and sometimes dominating older, more experienced players -- he thought this might be possible. He speculated before she had played a minute of college basketball that she could be among the best to ever play for his program. High praise and high expectations.
"But thinking it, and having it happen, these are two completely different things," Auriemma said. "I'm not surprised that it's happened, but to think that it would happen her freshman year, to this extent, these last [three] weeks it would be a difficult thing to admit that I thought so."
Now she's setting the Huskies up for a dynastic run over the next three seasons of her career.
Stewart said after the game that she had been "pretending," rehearsing in a sense, what it would be like to win a title.
"Just thinking about winning it in my mind," Stewart said.
And even in the moments after the game, she was processing.
"I don't really know what to think about this," Stewart said. "It's really special to me."
She will have plenty of time to figure it out. In the meantime, the hype machine that followed her into Storrs last summer will be headed into overdrive.
There's no doubt Stewart is about to be crowned the next big thing, the player who will fill the superstar vacuum left by Brittney Griner, Skylar Diggins and Elena Delle Donne.
"Obviously, there are things I can do better," Stewart said as she was about to be pulled away to take her place in line to cut down the national championship nets. "But right now, I don't want to think about that."
The rest of the teams in college basketball probably don't want to think about it, either.
17dBonnie D. Ford