Commentary

On big stage, Stewart again delivers

Soph repeats as Final Four Most Outstanding Player as UConn wins ninth title

Originally Published: April 8, 2014
By Graham Hays | espnW.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It was billed as the biggest game in the history of women's college basketball, an unprecedented pairing of undefeated teams with a championship on the line. The years to come might prove the billing accurate, or they might prove the hype and hubbub one more example of our tendency in the modern world to confuse most recent with most important.

What does seem fair to suggest is that it would be difficult to call anything the biggest game in the history of the sport if one of the all-time greats wasn't on the court to participate.

Legends make games legendary. Or maybe it's the other way around.

In the spirit of letting time run its course before writing history, perhaps Breanna Stewart isn't there yet. But after she totaled 21 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks in Connecticut's 79-58 win against Notre Dame on Tuesday, it grows increasingly difficult to believe she won't be among her sport's all-time greats by the time she's done playing for the sport's most successful program.

[+] EnlargeBreanna Stewart
Allen Kee/ESPN ImagesSophomore Breanna Stewart finished with a team-high 21 points, but her 14 points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocks in the first half set a tone for UConn.

Two seasons. Two NCAA championships. Two times the most outstanding player in the Final Four.

Only Cheryl Miller, Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi and Chamique Holdscaw ever earned that last honor a second time. That's some pretty impressive company.

None of them did so in their first two seasons. On that count, Stewart has no peers.

And that deserves a round of applause.

"I think last year I didn't really know what to expect -- I mean, I'd never been here before," Stewart said. "This year I knew what I wanted. I knew what it took to get here. And I think it helped a lot."

This was a more compelling game than the final score indicated, if only because the first half was about as good a display of basketball as the season produced. Connecticut came out and attacked aggressively in the paint from the outset. Even without All-American post Natalie Achonwa, Notre Dame destroyed Maryland on the boards and in the paint in Sunday's semifinal, but the Huskies controlled both areas with Stewart, Stefanie Dolson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Kiah Stokes.

On Connecticut's second possession, Stewart got deep in the paint and tipped home her own missed shot. Less than a minute later, position established again, she took a pass from Mosqueda-Lewis and finished from close range.

The rout wasn't on at that point, but a theme was.

Down as many as 14 points in the first half, the Fighting Irish cut the deficit to seven points by intermission on the strength of good shooting from Kayla McBride and Michael Mabrey, but they were plugging holes in an already doomed dam. Connecticut outscored Notre Dame 32-10 in the paint in the first half. There weren't enough shots in the building to make up for that disparity.

Stewart was in the middle of it all, totaling 14 points, five rebounds, three assists and two blocks in the first 20 minutes.

Asked about what she said to Geno Auriemma when the two shook hands and spoke briefly at the end of the game, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw relayed a light moment, in stark contrast to the previous day's charged mood. She said she told Auriemma that it felt at times like the Fighting Irish were playing the Miami Heat. All that was missing, she continued, was LeBron James.

If Stewie becomes a much better ball handler, like really can catch the ball and go anywhere she wants with it whenever she wants, I think there will be no guarding her ever -- on any level.

-- Geno Auriemma on Breanna Stewart

The thing is, while the two don't play the same game, the feeling of frustration James and Stewart instill in opposing coaches and players in their respective universes must be somewhat similar.

Relative to the sporting universe in which each operates, there just aren't any players like them.

After his team tried and failed to stop her on the first of three occasions earlier this season, Louisville coach Jeff Walz explained the difficulty relative to Maya Moore and Brittney Griner. Moore wasn't going to beat you as a post-up player, at least not every time. Griner wasn't going to beat you as an outside shooter. Stewart can beat you inside, outside or somewhere in the middle. Tuesday that was mostly as part of an assault on the paint, back to the basket, cutting to the rim or following misses.

She was no less influential on the defensive end, long arms allowing her leverage against Loyd or lurking in the paint to swat shots.

"Just the way she's developed over the years -- and it's only been two," Bria Hartley said. "It's pretty awesome the way she dominates the game already. You can just imagine what she's going to do the next two years."

Just about every Connecticut player has a Stewart story. Sometimes they are told with a grin, as when Hartley recalled a moment like the half-court head start she gave a Rutgers player this season, only to close the distance and block the layup attempt, or when fellow sophomore Moriah Jefferson recalled a one-handed tip-in that Stewart had to reach well behind her head to corral -- a play she almost duplicated Tuesday night.

Other times they are told with a groan, typically when they involve what happens when teammates are left to deal with Stewart in summer pickup games.

Often handed that unwelcome assignment, Kiah Stokes has more than a few of those stories. But she got her first taste of the Stewart experience before either arrived in Storrs, Conn. Taking one look at the kid who walked in for under-16 national team tryouts some years ago, Stokes decided the new arrival wasn't much of a threat. You know how that story ended.

"She didn't come in cocky," Stokes said. "She just kind of walked in, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, just excited to be there. She didn't really have the killer-instinct look that some players did when I first met her. But as soon as she got on the court, it was focus, she was ready to go."

[+] EnlargeBreanna Stewart
AP Photo/John BazemoreWhen Breanna Stewart established herself inside to tip in her own miss in the game's first minute, Notre Dame was already in trouble.

Twice during the regular season it looked like Connecticut might have to proceed without Mosqueda-Lewis, first when she injured her elbow against Stanford in November and later when she was diagnosed with mononucleosis during conference play. Given the vital role she played Tuesday night, rounding out an impressive tournament run, it is interesting to ponder what might have happened had either of those situations taken her out of the lineup for the long haul.

But the truth is as long as Connecticut had Stewart, it had a chance. Probably the best chance.

That wasn't necessarily true a season ago, or least we didn't know it was true until Stewart put an up-and-down regular season behind her and lit up the NCAA tournament. Stewart was great for three weeks as a freshman. She was just great as a sophomore.

"She's a lot more consistent this year," Hartley said. "She always had the potential. I think sometimes she would come out and have really great games and then sometimes you'd be like, 'Damn, where is this kid at?' She struggled with that, but coming into the NCAA tournament last year she picked it up. When you're that talented, you just go out there and play with confidence and play like no one can stop you. And honestly, in my opinion, no one can."

Connecticut associate head coach Chris Dailey acknowledged there isn't another player like Stewart in the college game, not with that particular combination of size and skills. But not even an hour after the nets came down, the coach had a simple promise. Stewart was going to spend a lot of time this offseason playing one-on-one or three-on-three. She might be a better athlete than some of the former Connecticut stars who poured into the locker room after the game -- she is in some ways the embodiment of the sport's athletic growth during the time in which Connecticut won nine championships. But she can be a better basketball player.

It wasn't news to Stewart.

"It's just getting even more comfortable with defenses being all up on me, pressuring me," Stewart said. "Especially coming up from the pinch post and going out to the wing and just becoming comfortable with the ball in my hands initially instead of just catching it and shooting it."

So even as the rest of the country tries to figure out what it's supposed to do with Stewart, she is already prepping for a third act.

"If Stewie becomes a much better ball handler, like really can catch the ball and go anywhere she wants with it whenever she wants," Auriemma said, "I think there will be no guarding her ever -- on any level."

The good thing is there is always another biggest game of all time waiting in which we can find out.

Maybe in Tampa this time next year.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

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