Let’s be honest for a minute, how many of you expected UConn star freshman Breanna Stewart would have her shot blocked by Ariel Braker once she got the ball inside with 28.9 seconds left Saturday. I didn’t.
How many of you expected that Stewart would miss an open jumper with 25 seconds left and the Huskies trailing 73-72? I didn’t. Neither did UConn coach Geno Auriemma or the members of the Huskies either. They have utmost confidence in Stewart’s skillset, no matter who the opponent is or how critical the situation in a game.
There is a reason why Stewart, a 6-foot-4 forward with the ability to handle the ball and shoot from the perimeter, arrived with such significant hype. She is that good, an All-American in waiting. And this is why there was such surprise following UConn’s loss to the Irish that Stewart did not produce. The expectations are just that high. And, yes, it is that difficult for freshmen to perform in games of this magnitude.
“It’s not easy, but that’s what you come here for,’’ UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “No matter whether you’re a freshman or a senior there’s no excuses for just different issues or different … if you have a turnover or mistakes that you make, yeah, it’s going to be tough. We’ve all been there. And these are the ones you’re supposed to thrive in, and these are supposed to be the fun games. It’s nerve-wracking, but if you’re that type of player to come here you’ve got to get over that type of thing. And she still got some stuff done. But she knows it. We all know each of us has different things that we have to work on, and she knows there’s a lot that she’s going to have to come back and work on because there’s people out there that are better than us. And clearly Notre Dame came out and they exposed us and there’s some things we need to fix.’’
“I’m confident,’’ Stewart said. “I’m still going to take those shots. Just because I know that I can make them because I’ve made them before.’’
Here is an example of how tough it can be to play in this type of game as a freshman … Notre Dame senior All-American Skylar Diggins had six points (2-of-13 FG) and four turnovers in 34 minutes in a 70-46 loss at Gampel Pavilion in her first game against UConn Jan. 16, 2010.
Fast-forward to Saturday, Diggins made two game-winning free throws with 49.4 seconds left and finished with 19 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals in her latest demolition of the Huskies. She is averaging 20.7 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.2 steals in the last six games against UConn. Notre Dame has won five of them.
Stewart said she felt overwhelmed at times and that she was playing too fast at times, especially in the first half when she was scoreless (0-of-5 FG) and committed two turnovers in 10 minutes.
“It’s really hard,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “I think you probably want to play really well. You want to play really well so badly that maybe you just get a little bit ahead of yourself. I don’t know. Obviously, it was a real struggle for her (Saturday) at both ends of the floor. And these are the kind of games that hopefully you play in January, you learn from them and you get better.’’
Said Stewart: “It’s always frustrating. You want to play your best in the big games like this. But, obviously, my first half wasn’t great. But I wanted to at least come out and try to have a strong second half. And still there’s things I need to work on. It’s just a lot of things. Obviously, I would like if my shot would go in. And just really … Being aware of everything on the court and I know teams are going to hit me and things like that, and I just really need to keep embracing the physical play.’’
While Stewart’s missed opportunities in the waning seconds stand out in defeat, looking at the final stats you find that she produced 10 points (5-of-17 FG), nine rebounds and a season-high six blocks in 22 minutes against the fifth-ranked Irish.
Being the type of competitor that she is, Stewart is not buying into this whole freshman thing.
“I’m not going to say it’s difficult because, obviously, as a freshman you want to be in these types of situations and you want to have that kind of pressure on you because that’s just what you want,’’ Stewart said. “And I just need to learn to play through that.’’
Moving forward now, here is what Auriemma would like to see from Stewart …
“I would like to see her just go and take a deep breath and relax,’’ Auriemma said. “I would like for somebody to go down to the Charter Oak Bridge and make sure that she doesn’t jump off. That would be a big help for us so then we get her back for Wednesday’s game (at Georgetown). But I’d like to see her understand that, `There’s things about the college game that I don’t know yet. There’s things that I have to get done that I’m not capable of doing yet.’ And the physicalness of the game, that in time, I hope sooner rather than later. But she looked out of sorts a little bit right from the beginning and struggled a little bit. But that’s part of the whole thing. It’s not easy being a freshman and playing in these games.
“What did she finish with 10 points and nine rebounds and six blocks? That’s not a bad day except when you think about `She’s Breanna Stewart.’ So 10 points, nine rebounds, six blocks – she almost had a triple double – and you go, `Wow, man, she sucked today.’ But I think it’s what we expect of her and what the expectation level is of her. Things that happened and the shots that she missed that we’ve just come to expect, `Yeah, she’s going to make all of those.’ And it’s just another reminder that she’s a freshman. And freshman do freshman things. Sometimes in big spots they do great things and sometimes in big spots they do freshman things. She played OK, not what we’ve come to expect.’’
Stewart is averaging 14.8 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 22.3 minutes through the first 13 games. She is second on the team in scoring and first in rebounding (tie) and blocks. She is shooting 52.9 percent from the field and 84.4 percent from the free throw line.
Stewart is also averaging 11.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 22.8 minutes in six games against ranked teams.
“Yeah, I’m a freshman so I’m still learning,’’ Stewart said. “But at the same time I know how to play basketball I think. And it’s not like the game has changed. It’s just I need to keep learning the game. I have a lot I can improve on. I think that it just shows that over these past 13 games that there’s been some good things, but there’s also been some bad things. And I really would like to fix those.’’