The wait was not pleasant for UConn freshman Breanna Stewart. She had hoped to make her NCAA tournament debut Saturday against Idaho. It did not happen as she was held out as a precautionary measure with a sore left calf.
It had been 13 days since Stewart had played a game when she finally stepped on the court at Gampel Pavilion Monday in the second round against Vanderbilt. Judging by the way that she played one would have never known that she was coming off of such a lengthy layoff.
Stewart finished with 14 points (6-of-11 FG), five rebounds, three blocks and three steals as the Huskies advanced to the Bridgeport regional semifinals with a 77-44 win over the Commodores. She also did not commit a turnover in 27 minutes.
“I had been down for a while, and I was trying to really get myself back into the way I know how to play,’’ Stewart said. “I think that in the Big East tournament I definitely stepped it up, and I’ve carried it over into the NCAA tournament. I feel good. I feel confident with how I’m playing. Obviously, there’s still stuff I have to work on, but just having this confidence really helps.’’
Not only did Stewart hurt Vanderbilt with her scoring ability, Commodores’ coach Melanie Balcomb was caught off guard a bit by Stewart’s presence defensively as well.
“She’s so aggressive defensively, that was what surprised me,’’ Balcomb said. “I knew she could score. I recruited her out of high school. But I didn’t know she would be that aggressive defensively, shooting the gaps and getting in passing lanes. She’s a scoring machine. Obviously, she can face up and get to the rim and stretch the defense. But I didn’t know that she had the defense and the effort that she’s changed from high school and AAU. That adjustment as a freshman is rare today that’s she’s been able to do.’’
Stewart, who was named to the Big East all-tournament team, is averaging 16.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 29.5 minutes in four postseason games. She is shooting 59.6 percent from the field (28-of-47 FG) and has committed only three turnovers in 118 minutes.
Stewart has reached double figures in scoring in four straight games. It is her longest such streak since a run of six games from Jan. 5 through Jan. 29.
Prior to the Big East tournament opener against DePaul March 10, Stewart had scored in double figures in just four of her previous 10 games (8.1). At the most important time of the season she looks to have fully re-established her dominance for the Huskies.
“The more and more she does these things and is able to build her confidence in herself of, `Hey, look I can do this’ or `I can do that’ the better off it is,’’ UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “Because once she kind of sees that she’s able to do those things and is capable to be that type of player the better she’ll play.’’