NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- On Sunday afternoon, Connecticut sophomore Breanna Stewart garnered her second national player of the year award of the weekend.
A few hours later, Stewart proved why she deserved the individual honors by leading her team with a workman-like 18 points to go along with a team-tying-high seven rebounds as the Huskies advanced to the national championship game with a 75-56 victory against Stanford.
Stewart, who was selected the Ann Meyers Drysdale National Player of the Year by the United States Basketball Writers Association earlier in the day, got out to a slow start but as she heated up, so did the Huskies.The Huskies were in dogfight with Stanford and trailed the Cardinal until 3:04 remaining in the first half when Stewart made her first field goal of the night, hitting a jumper to put Connecticut up 24-22. It was a lead it would not relinquish as it improved to 39-0, setting up a meeting of undefeated squads between the Huskies and Notre Dame in the championship final.
“It’s hard to make shots at the Final Four,” Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma said. “I thought once we settled in and got our rhythm, we played one of the best games we played all year.”
“At times, we were a little jumpy and too excited,” Stewart said. “We had to settle down and once we did that, it seemed like shots started falling.”
Stewart, who entered the game with a team-leading 19.4 points per game, made up for her lack of field goals early in the first half by connecting on 6 of 7 free throws.
“When we’re not hitting jump shots we have to try to get in the lane whether it’s with a post move or driving or getting to the free-throw line,” junior center Kiah Stokes said. “I think Bria Hartley and Breanna Stewart did a great job with that -- just getting to the free-throw line. That helps get our offense going because at least we’re getting some points out of it.”
And, Stewart kept her composure despite the slow beginning and did all the little things a national player of the year should do.
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Stewart added two blocks and a momentum-changing steal at the two-minute mark in the first half. She drove down the court and followed it up with a layup to put the Huskies up by six points 28-22.
“The steal that Stewie got was awesome and it really changed the momentum of the game,” senior guard Hartley said. “I think that’s what our defense does. We make it tough for them to score and when we’re able to create offense off of that, we able to play a lot better.”
Auriemma’s substitution of Kiah Stokes in the lineup midway through the first half allowed Stewart to switch to guard the three, giving the Huskies a bigger lineup, which helped them tighten up defensively.
“[Stokes] changed things defensively so they could go big,” Stanford senior star Chiney Ogwumike said. “It’s harder to get passes inside, harder to get shots off against Stewart. I think that had an impact on the game.”
Stewart, who was last year’s most outstanding player at the Women’s Final Four, was also named The Associated Press player of the year, and more awards like the Wade Trophy are probably on the way.
She is only the second UConn sophomore to earn the USBWA honor -- the first since Maya Moore accomplished the feat in 2009.
Stewart’s performance may not have dazzled, but it was solid and dependable, just like you would expect from a national player of the year award recipient.
• Stewart named AP player of the year