By Carl Adamec
HARTFORD, Conn. — Geno Auriemma was asked at his postgame press conference Monday night/Tuesday morning if he could pinpoint what the problem might be for struggling freshman forward Breanna Stewart.
The best the University of Connecticut women’s basketball coach could do was answer the question with another question.
“Don’t you think if I knew what the darn problem was I would fix it?” Auriemma said, managing a smile after the third-ranked Huskies’ 76-70 loss to No. 1 Baylor at the XL Center.
Stewart played a season low seven minutes against the defending national champions. Back in the day, Auriemma would have referred to her as the “Ballantine girl” — you know the three rings that for a basketball player signify no points, no rebounds, and no assists.
Her first stint on the floor lasted 23 seconds as she was yanked after losing a Baylor player on an inbounds pass that led to a Niya Johnson layup. She would later take two first-half shots. Neither one looked like it had a chance to go in.
At one point, with Stefanie Dolson gasping for breath as she battled with Baylor’s Player of the Year Brittney Griner, Auriemma considered giving his junior center a quick break.
“One time I thought, ‘Maybe I should get her out.’ ” Auriemma said. “I looked over (at the bench) and thought, ‘Nah. Maybe not.’ “
Maybe it was the physical beating Stewart took at the hands of Maryland and Penn State in December. Maybe it was her inability to make the big shot at the end against Notre Dame in January. Maybe it’s the freshman wall in February.
But twice this month UConn has been involved in close games and Stewart was not on the floor when it was being decided.
“I’m as confused and as flabbergasted as anyone else,” Auriemma said. “I don’t have any experience with this. I’ve seen it happen but not to this extent. I wish I had all the answers and I could help her with it. Right now, we’re going to have to work really, really hard with her to get her back to where she can be productive.
“It’s disappointing that Kiah Stokes and Stewie are not ready to play in this game. That really, really pisses me off. It really does. That would eliminate some of those 21 offensive rebounds Baylor got. So we got to get better as coaches or they’ve got to get better as players.”
Sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis was Stewart’s teammate for three summers on USA Basketball national teams before Stewart even arrived at UConn. It was easy for her to believe that Stewart would be the one that could get the Huskies over the top against the elite teams like Baylor and Notre Dame.
Since Mosqueda-Lewis arrived at UConn, the Huskies are 1-6 against the Bears and Irish and 56-1 against everyone else.
“We can’t win without everyone on this team,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “We need Stewie to go in there and be confident and know what she’s doing and go in there and rebound and score. She’s a way better player than what she went out there and did today. She can be more productive for our team. Once she is we’re going to be that much better.”
Morgan Tuck, Stewart’s classmate, agrees.
“She is going to bring something to the table. I have no doubt about that,” Tuck said. “Sometimes you have moments when you’re down a bit but I’m sure she’ll turn it around.”
Stewart is now averaging a season low 12.7 points and 6.5 rebounds. Her shooting percentage has fallen below 50 percent and she’s not had back-to-back double-figure scoring games this month. She was the last of the Huskies’ three freshmen to get into Monday night’s game.
“When you’re a young player, and I’ve seen it happen with a lot of players, and you get stunned at some point during the season it takes a lot to recover,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know exactly when it happened but right now Breanna Stewart’s mind isn’t going to let her be the kind of player that I think she can be. Right now, today. Maybe a month from now that changes but right now it’s not good up there and that is where it is. It’s not good up there because there are things physically that she is struggling with on a regular basis so that gets into your head. It’s like a guy that can’t hit a curve ball and it gets into his head and then he can’t hit any pitch. That’s kind of where she is right now.
“We obviously have to find another reliable scorer from the perimeter other than Kaleena. Bria Hartley didn’t shot the ball well tonight. Kelly Faris … I think we can take more advantage in the next month of Morgan’s talents because you won’t be able to guard her and Stefanie together. And you have to hope in the next month that Breanna Stewart develops into somebody she used to be.”
The Huskies (24-2 overall, 11-1 Big East) return to Big East play Saturday when they host Seton Hall at Gampel Pavilion. They then entertain Pittsburgh Feb. 26 before closing out the regular season at South Florida March 2 and at Notre Dame March 4. They trail the Irish by one game in the league so if they win out they will at least share the regular season title.
It has to be a team effort if UConn’s season is to last as long as it hopes, and that includes Stewart being a trusted and productive player.
“It’s not so far away where we can’t reach it,” Mosuqeda-Lewis said. “We see it. But until we connect all the dots it’s not going to work.”