The more and more UConn coach Geno Auriemma watched Breanna Stewart play in high school and with USA Basketball the more and more he began to wonder. Just how good could she be once she got to the college level, once she truly learned how to play the game, once she became a smarter player and once her 6-foot-4 body began fill in a bit.
Auriemma has seen Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore come and go. They are the top two players in the rich history of this program. They are two of the top players in the world today. And Auriemma thought to himself that Stewart could be as good as any player he has ever coached.
Over the last five games, Stewart proved to be everything that Auriemma had imagined. Only a freshman, she was the best player in the NCAA tournament in carrying UConn to its NCAA record-tying eighth national championship.
“Breanna Stewart is a little kid in a big-game body,’’ Auriemma said. “She kept her innocence, but her performance was unparalleled. She sees the fun and the joy in everything, and that’s why I’m really thrilled for her because there were times this year where all that went away, and I was really, really worried about her. And she got it back and she got it back just in time. And here we are.’’
Stewart scored a combined 52 points at the Final Four, becoming the fourth freshman in the 32-year history of the tournament to be named the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. That represents the seventh highest points total in tournament history. Only Moore (57, 2010) and Taurasi (54, 2003) have currently scored more at this stage for the Huskies.
Stewart opened the two-game showcase at New Orleans Arena by setting a team freshman record by scoring 29 points (10-of-16 FG) in an 83-65 win over Notre Dame in the national semifinals Sunday. She then had 23 points (9-of-15), nine rebounds, three assists, three blocks and three steals in a 93-60 rout of Louisville in the final Tuesday.
“I’m so proud of her,’’ Moore said. “She just played unbelievable. You could tell she wasn’t conscious the whole game (Tuesday). She was playing out of her mind. And it was fun to see that when her team needed it the most.’’
There was some question entering this tournament whether or not Stewart could be the player that the Huskies needed her to be if they were to win a national championship. Aside from the first 10 games this season, she had been largely inconsistent.
Stewart was averaging 12.7 points (.495 percent FG), 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 22.5 minutes entering the NCAA tournament. She averaged 20.8 points (.563), 6.2 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in 31.2 minutes in five games in this tournament.
“I’m not sure if I have (played better),’’ Stewart said. “There have been games I’ve played well, high school and stuff. But to play this well on a stage like this? Probably not. I really try to embrace it. When I was in high school, my teammates would be completely relying on me to play well. You have to do it. It’s fun. It’s fun to step up in pressure moments and pressure situations.’’
Stewart set a team freshman scoring record in the NCAA tournament final. Ann Strother scored 17 in a win over Tennessee in 2003. And despite missing the opener against Idaho with a left calf problem, Stewart set a team freshman scoring record in the tournament overall with 104 points. Moore scored 94 in UConn’s run to the Final Four 2008.
UConn senior Kelly Faris said that Stewart unquestionably was the key to this championship quest.
“That changed us a ton,’’ Faris said. “I don’t think people understand how much we needed her to get to this point. 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 up like she has… We have a freshman that’s the MVP of the national championship game. And that doesn’t happen anywhere but here. And she deserves it. And kind of, again, I’m glad she’s on our side. I wouldn’t want to be playing against her.’’
This, of course, is only the beginning for Stewart. With three years of eligibility remaining who knows how far she will soar.
Stewart has already set the bar so very high. But a player with her drive and will to be the best player she can be, she will try to raise her level of play even further next season when the Huskies look to repeat as champions.
“I consider Geno to be like the old saying about Dean Smith. Remember? The only one that could keep Michael Jordan from scoring 20 was Dean Smith,’’ Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. “The only one that can keep Breanna Stewart from scoring 25 is Geno. She’s unbelievable and in the postseason she finally got into the flow of things. She’s the X-factor. You’ve got a 6-4 kid that can play inside and out and shoot the 3 like she does. She’s a nightmare.’’