New Orleans • Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma likes to joke that God played a huge trick on everyone in college basketball when he created Breanna Stewart.
When the 6-foot-4 freshman forward walks on the court for Tuesday’s national championship game, 6:30 p.m. (MDT) on ESPN, against Louisville, will people do a double take? “This is the best athlete in college basketball, by far? Really? That’s got to be an April Fool’s joke,” Auriemma said.
With a gym rat pallor honed by countless hours at the YMCA and biceps and triceps nowhere to be found, Stewart is an unlikely looking star. Until she gets her hands on the ball. The kid from Syracuse, N.Y., can hit jumpers from any zip code, block shots when it’s least expected and run the floor like a guard. Against Notre Dame in Sunday’s semifinal, she scored a career-high 29 points, had four blocks and five rebounds.
“A lot of people say I’m skinny,” said Stewart who is skinny. When she went into Auriemma’s office wearing a sleeveless jersey one day, her coach cracked, “Put a shirt on. Don’t show those muscles.”
Louisville coach Jeff Walz isn’t surprised that Stewart, the 2012 national high school player of the year, has lit up the NCAA Tournament. At the 2012 Olympics, Walz sat next to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim at the gold-medal game. “[Boeheim] was like, ‘Wow, you know, there’s this kid that plays open gym with our women at Syracuse, she’s going to UConn, she’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen,’” Walz recalled Monday.
“I’m like, yeah, I know,” he said, bemoaning facing Stewart the next three years.
Stewart honed her game playing hoops with her father, Brian. (He’s 5-foot-11 and her mom is about 5-foot-8.) “He was one of those YMCA junkie guys,” Stewart said. “This is the first year we haven’t watched [the NCAA Tournament] together. He started watching it with my mom,” Stewart said, then paused for effect. “Not the same.”
When Stewart found herself in a scoring slump late in the regular season, her father helped lift her up. So did extra time in the gym with associate head coach Chris Dailey.
“Stewie really takes things to heart and she puts a lot of pressure on herself,” Auriemma said. “And when she wasn’t playing well, it got into her (head) 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.”
In the Big East Tournament, Stewart rediscovered her shot, and her sense of self. With renewed confidence, she’s dominated the postseason, averaging 19 points, five rebounds, while blocking 18 shots in seven games.
She earned Most Outstanding Play honors in the Bridgeport Regional and helped UConn reach its sixth straight Final Four. If the Huskies win their eighth national title, she would accomplish something that neither Diana Taurasi nor Maya Moore achieved as freshmen.
On the podium during press conferences, she shies from the spotlight. Stewart pulls the neck of her shirt over her face when she thinks she doesn’t answer a reporter’s question just right. Away from such a staged environment, Stewart is relaxed and funny, completely at ease.
The same holds true for her demeanor on the court. She smiles after hitting a big shot and commands the spotlight. After beating Notre Dame, Auriemma said he’s never had a freshman have a bigger game in such a huge moment, adding, “And I hope she’s got another one left in her Tuesday night.”