Connecticut's Stewart begins her quest for fourth NCAA Championship
STORRS, Conn. -- The double takes when Breanna Stewart makes her way around the UConn campus have become second nature to the two-time national player of the year.
A trip to any restaurant or mall in Connecticut will likely result with well wishers approaching her. It's not unusual after road games for crowds of young fans to be surrounding the multi-faceted 6-4 senior eager for a quick picture or two. However, the magnitude of Stewart's time as a Husky didn't fully hit home until she found herself far from the hub of Huskymania.
Stewart and UConn head coach Geno Auriemma were in the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, but they weren't wearing Husky apparel. Still, there were the familiar looks from wide-eyed strangers making their way to spend a few moments with the player who could make history by leading the Huskies to an unprecedented fourth straight national title.
"I think over the years it has been more and more attention, but this is what happens when you have so much success," Stewart said. "People are going to recognize you more and more. When Coach and I were in the Frankfurt airport, people recognized us. We are in Germany and somebody is recognizing us. That was pretty cool to me."
Her trip to Germany was, of course, basketball related. Her immense skills have enabled her to travel outside the U.S. dating back to 2009 when she was the youngest member of the United States squad which won the inaugural FIBA Americas U16 Championship for Women in Mexico City.
Stewart had already been a member of three gold medal teams with USA Basketball before she played her first game at UConn. Two years later she became the second high school player to play for the U.S. at the Pan Am Games.
Stewart did more than just play on a team made up of college stars. She led the team in scoring, rebounding and blocks. At the time, former WNBA coach Jen Gillom, an assistant on that squad, predicted Stewart would be a member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
The same quiet confidence that won over coaches and older teammates during her various USA Basketball stints has been evident since she arrived in Storrs. When asked about her goals with the Huskies, she matter-of-factly responded that she wanted to be a member of four national championship teams.
But it wasn't done in a boastful manner -- which shouldn't come as a surprise considering Stewart bypassed a signing party and inked her national letter on intent on the hood of her father's car.
"You think from the outside looking in, they are from UConn or they are that or this, they are big shots, but she is the complete opposite," said South Carolina All-American Tiffany Mitchell, who was Stewart's roommate at the 2015 Pan Am Games. "She is really cool. Of course you are going to know who she is if she doesn't have on UConn gear, but she is a really normal person. I don't think people understand that she is normal. You can talk to her."
While Diana Taurasi had a playful spirit while being UConn's resident superstar and Maya Moore had an almost regal aura about her, Stewart is about as close to being a blue-collar superstar as you will find.
"Stewie does a phenomenal job with that," sophomore guard Kia Nurse said. "I can't even imagine the world on her shoulders, especially the basketball world. No matter what she does, it is always somewhere in the media. She does a great job of remaining humble on and off the court and she is a phenomenal leader. It is always great to have a teammate who can do whatever, and to know that she will dive through a wall to get the ball. That is just inspiring to you."
While Stewart might be humble, she does not lack for confidence. After all, your average player wouldn't score 29 points in the national semifinals as a freshman against a Notre Dame team with four current WNBA stars.
"My confidence level on the court is very high," Stewart said. "Obviously I am not going to be one to stomp my chest or anything like that, just because that is not what I do. But I know what I am good at and that is what you are going to get out of me. As you continue to play basketball and as you continue to play on higher and higher levels, the confidence is going to continue to grow."
So is her competitive spirit. After the Huskies' lone loss a season ago, Stewart displayed an uncharacteristic amount of emotion in the postgame press conference. The overtime loss at Stanford didn't bother Stewart as much as how the game slipped away from the Huskies. While not pointing any fingers, she vowed that things would be changing.
While not as natural of a vocal leader as teammate Morgan Tuck, her teammates certainly got the message. The Huskies won their next 38 games and the program's 10th national title.
"I think she has a more realistic understanding of where she is and where she could be; what can happen and what the struggle is like to do that," Auriemma said. "I don't know that her true personality ever comes out. She is not an easy one to pin down. She doesn't really give you a whole lot to work with and she kind of keeps it to herself. She hopes that playing will be enough, not having to talk about it."
Being the Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four three times has allowed Stewart to have her named mentioned among the sport's all-time greats. It has also earned her the admiration of her peers.
"She is one of a kind and she will go down in the history books," Baylor All-American forward Nina Davis said. "I know coming in as a freshman, she had a goal of winning the national championship four years in a row. And I not trying to let that happen, of course. ...I am not going to say that you will never see it again, but she is a rare talent."
It wasn't long after that championship game that the magnitude of it all hit home. Stewart never backtracked on her declaration that she wanted to leave UConn with four national titles, and suddenly it's a very real possibility.
"I definitely have thought about it, especially after winning it last year," Stewart said. "Winning one was nice, winning two was obviously nice, three was the hardest. I haven't done four years, so I will let you know after. But you can't win four without winning three. When I look back at that, I think, wow, we've had a lot of success."
Auriemma recently questioned what Stewart's legacy would be if the Huskies "only" won three titles during her time with the Huskies. But coming up short in her final season is certainly not part of Stewart's master plan.
"I don't want to just have three, especially with it being my senior year," Stewart said. "You want to go out on the highest note possible."
She also knows that teams like South Carolina, Notre Dame, Maryland, Baylor and Florida State are among the star-studded squads who are determined not to let Stewart finish her mission.
"You are not going to just walk into places and have it be a cake walk. People are going to want to beat you," Stewart said. "Any place we go and any team we play, they want to beat us. And that is why we have to push each other so hard in practice as a team and individually because nobody wants to see us have success besides ourselves."
It will start on Monday when the Huskies play at Ohio State. Another challenging road game will come on Feb. 8 against South Carolina.
"It is not just her, she has great coaches who can keep her in the road," said South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley, who worked with Stewart as an assistant with the U.S. national team. "She is still young and I am sure she wants to do things that young people do, but they see otherwise."
Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time WNBA All-Star, compares Stewart's skill set to current WNBA star Candace Parker. Stewart has the size to score inside, but can also score from the perimeter, as her 106 career 3-pointers with the Huskies will attest.
"She is a matchup nightmare with her size when you talk about game planning and trying to figure out how you defend her," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "Do you put a forward on her? Do you put a center? Do you put a guard? She has the length over a guard, a forward you are trying to chase her off of stagger screens, she can shoot the 3, she can pull up. So it is a matchup nightmare in terms of finding somebody who can defend her."
This article was written by Jim Fuller from New Haven Register, Conn. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.