UConn's next star steps to the fore
Stewart scores 29 points as Huskies whip Notre Dame
On Sunday night, the face of women’s college basketball changed before our eyes.
While Notre Dame senior star Skylar Diggins concluded an incredible career, Connecticut freshman Breanna Stewart emerged as one to watch in the future. Stewart scored a career-high 29 points in the Huskies’ 83-65 victory against the Irish in the NCAA semifinals as Connecticut defeated Notre Dame for the first time in four tries this season and advanced to their first national title game since 2010.
Stewart, last year’s high-school player of the year, continued to prove why she was the most sought-after recruit in the nation in the biggest game of her career as a Husky.
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Stewart connected on 10 of 16 shots, including a career-best four 3-pointers, while grabbing five rebounds. After tallying 12 points in the first half, she buried a 3-pointer to start off the Huskies’ scoring attack in the second, and then added another triple with 10:55 remaining to give UConn a 13-point lead and the momentum.
Stewart, who was voted the Bridgeport Regional’s Most Outstanding Player last week, entered the matchup against Notre Dame averaging 17 points in the past seven games -- all postseason contests -- and stepped it up a notch in the victory against the Irish.
“It is really impressive to have a freshman have that kind of game, to be Most Outstanding Player in the regional and then to come into the Final Four and just play with such confidence to be the best player on the floor -- well, on the team for Connecticut,” Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw said. “You don't expect a freshman to rise to the occasion like that. I thought a phenomenal performance by her.”
But the confidence has not always been there for Stewart this season. Although she began the year on a tear, starting and scoring in double figures in the first seven games, Stewart went through a long, inconsistent stretch. She netted just five points in the final regular-season contest against Notre Dame on March 4, but then a switch flipped and she has been lights-out ever since.
Stewart credits working in the gym with assistant coach Chris Dailey, but Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma believes her mental game has seen the biggest development.
“I'm not sure if I just woke up and started feeling better, but I think that getting in the gym with C.D. and stuff like that really helped just gain my confidence in practice and then put it over into the game,” Stewart said.
“She's gotten stronger mentally,” Auriemma said. “I think she's gotten stronger emotionally. Stewy really takes things to heart and she puts a lot of pressure on herself. And when she wasn't playing well, it got into her pretty severely and she let it affect her. She wasn't strong enough mentally and strong enough emotionally to just kind of put it aside.
“[At] the end of the regular season, there was a renewed, almost kind of I'm not going to settle for this anymore. I'm not going to allow myself to feel like this anymore. That's kind of rare for an 18-year-old to be able to do that. And I do think that getting in the gym and being able to clear your mind and just go back to what you love doing, just playing basketball -- and then once she started playing well, it just snowballed.”
Stewart’s teammates have had confidence in the rookie’s abilities from Day 1.
“I think this is what we knew was in her,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “This is what we saw from the beginning of the year. And then everybody goes through their little lapses of issues, whatever they may be. And this is what we wanted her to get back to. This is how she plays basketball. It is how she's always played basketball. So, you guys are just kind of starting to get a glimpse of what we knew that she had.”
Connecticut has had great players and great performances during the past two decades, but even Auriemma is not sure he has seen a freshman play better when so much was on the line.
“Given the stage and what was at stake, I don't know -- I don't know that I've seen any bigger, way bigger,” Auriemma said. “I know there's been NCAA tournament games where we've had certain individuals play great, great, great games. But I don't remember a player having a better game in this environment, and certainly I've never seen a freshman have a game like this in this environment.”
• Connecticut improved its record to 8-6 all time in national semifinal contests. Connecticut has never lost in the championship game. It also marks the seventh time that the Huskies have reached the final as a No. 1 seed, having won the championship all seven times.
• With 10 points against UConn, Diggins finished her career with a school-record 2,357 points.
• Notre Dame’s loss ended its school-record 30-game winning streak. In that streak, Notre Dame averaged 82.8 points per game, winning by an average of 23.8 points and shooting .464 from the field. On Sunday, the Irish scored 65 points and shot 29.7 percent from the field.