Oct. 9, 2013
STORRS, Conn. – Nearly eleven months ago, University of Connecticut forward Breanna Stewart stood out on the court in Gampel Pavilion as an inexperienced and highly-touted freshman, ready to play in her first collegiate game against the College of Charleston. Today, the 6-4 phenom is preparing for her second season in Storrs, this time returning to the hardwood as a national champion.
Stewart came to UConn as one of the most decorated athletes in New York high school history, finishing her senior year receiving National Player of the Year honors by Gatorade, USA Today, Parade Magazine, McDonald's (Morgan Wootten Player of the Year Award), the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. She compiled 2,367 points, 1,389 rebounds, 325 steals and 634 blocks in 119 career games for Cicero-North Syracuse High School, en route to an impressive 83 wins.
Stewart’s unique skill set intrigued coaches and fans alike, helping to generate a tremendous amount of buzz for UConn’s 2012-13 season. Expectations were sky-high for the freshman, even before she had a chance to begin practices with head coach Geno Auriemma and the seasoned Husky team. Despite the flurry of attention, Stewart was able to maintain focus on her game, which was something that she prioritized upon her arrival in Storrs.
“I just came in here trying to be humble,” said Stewart. “I wanted to work hard for my teammates. The success I had in high school was awesome, but I knew it was going to be a whole different level of play at UConn. I didn’t want to get ahead of myself and I knew I had to work on my game to get ready for the season.”
Stewart’s hard work paid off as she made her collegiate debut in style, scoring 21 points on 8-11 shooting from the floor, while making all five of her free throw attempts and posting four steals in the Huskies' 103-39 win over the College of Charleston on November 11. Stewart’s huge wingspan made her a dual-threat for the Huskies, as she was able to dominate in the paint but also possessed the ability to step back behind the arc and hit a three-pointer.
Almost immediately, her fellow Husky teammates knew that she was going to be a special player.
“The things Breanna can do out on the court make her one of the most dangerous players in the country,” said senior All-American Stefanie Dolson. “She has so many weapons that it becomes hard for any defense to stop her. Not only does she create shots on her own, but her play opens things up for the rest of us. She’s selfless and just wants to help this team win.”
Stewart saw action in 36 of UConn’s 39 games, making 14 starts and putting on one of the greatest postseason performances in Connecticut history. She averaged 20.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while shooting a team best .563 (40-71) percent from the field and .600 percent (9-15) from beyond the 3-point arc in five NCAA Tournament games. She became just the third UConn freshman, along with Maya Moore in 2008 and Diana Taurasi in 2001, to be selected as the NCAA Regional Most Outstanding Player.
“I stopped thinking about things,” the forward said. “I just went out and played. It gave me a lot more freedom. I think I would put too much pressure on myself in the moment and it was hurting my game. I really wanted to help this team win and I’m glad I was able to play well when we needed it most.”
After the Huskies celebrated the program’s eighth national title, Stewart became only the fourth freshman all-time to be honored as the Final Four Most Outstanding Player.
Entering 2013-14, Stewart feels strongly like she has much to improve upon and wants to work on maintaining the level of play that she exhibited in the BIG EAST and NCAA tournaments.
“I want to be more consistent. I think that can be used in all facets of the game. Obviously, there are a lot of things I can improve on, being a sophomore, but I just want to focus on coming out strong every game.”
Stewart continued to pile up the championships this summer when she earned her sixth career gold medal competing for the 2013 USA Basketball U19 National Team. Not surprisingly, she led Team USA with a game-high 26 point performance in the gold medal game against Lithuania, propelling the USA to a 113-47 victory.
“It was a lot of fun,” Stewart said of her experience this summer. “I’ve always enjoyed playing USA basketball over the past few summers. Playing with Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck was a lot of fun. It seems like we’ve been spending a ton of time together over the past year which is a good thing as teammates. I tried to take on more of a leadership role which is something that I definitely want to carry over to this year. We have two great seniors in Stef and Bria, but we have to try and fill the void left by the three seniors who graduated this spring.”
With Connecticut embarking on its inaugural season in the newly-formed American Athletic Conference, UConn players will be facing some unfamiliar foes as conference play opens up in late December. The Huskies will have their hands full as the schedule features eight games against teams in last year's RPI top-15 and seven games against teams that won a conference championship in 2012-13. Despite the unchartered territory, Stewart believes that the team will be able to successfully make the adjustment to the new conference.
“We want to take the same approach. The ultimate goal is to win a national championship. We want to improve our team chemistry. We have one freshman coming in and we want to make sure she becomes part of the group. There are a lot of voids to fill. I think practices will help as we prepare for some of these new teams, and I’m looking forward to our first game.”
With a full year of collegiate experience under her belt and a team that returns eight players from last season, Stewart and the Huskies figure once again to be vying for a chance to claim national glory in the 2013-14 season.