By Carl Adamec
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Breanna Stewart may eventually win the debate on the best player to ever take the court for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team.
She would prefer being the best winner to play for the Huskies.
The All-American forward joined Hall of Famer Cheryl Miller as the only ones to be named the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Final Four as a freshman and as a sophomore Tuesday night. Stewart had 21 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and two blocked shots as UConn completed a perfect season and a successful defense of its national championship by rolling past Notre Dame 79-58 at Bridgestone Arena.
“Coming to Connecticut, I’m here to reach my full potential and become as good of a player as I can be and win national championships,” Stewart said. “Next year, I want to win a win another one. But we’ll enjoy this one. I win two, I want to win three. We win three, then we’ll see about winning four.
“Right now I’m in the right mindset. I know what it takes to win national championships. Going forward, I’m excited for what’s to come. But I’m going to enjoy this a little bit.”
Coming off her breakout NCAA Tournament a year ago, Stewart returned and played at a high level throughout her second season. She has been named the national Player of the Year by the Associated Press and United States Basketball Writers and on Monday picked up the Naismith Award. She is also a finalist for the Wooden Award.
She finished the year averaging 19.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 2.8 blocked shots as the Huskies capped off their fifth perfect season and captured an unprecedented ninth national championship.
“She’s a really humble person and she deserves everything that she gets,” UConn forward Morgan Tuck said. “If there was a person you had to pick to be the MVP here, it was her.”
It’s the second straight year in the Final Four that Stewart torched Notre Dame.
She had 29 points as the Huskies avenged three earlier losses to the Irish in the 2013 national semifinals.
Tuesday night she was 10-for-15 from the floor — doing most of her work in the lane — as the Huskies (40-0) took advantage of their huge edge in the post.
“I was just being aggressive, getting easy shots at the basket,” Stewart said.
And with 43.9 seconds left she came out of the game for the only time and was welcomed to the bench with a hug from coach Geno Auriemma, who passed Tennessee’s Pat Summitt for the most NCAA titles.
“It separates him. It separates him from everyone else,” Stewart said. “He’s the best coach in the country. He’s the best coach in women’s basketball and up there as the best coach in basketball. He deserves it.”
Up next for Stewart is a bid to make the United States national team that will compete in the FIBA world championships Sept. 27-Oct. 5 in Turkey. She already owns five gold medals playing for USA Basketball.
“I’m going there to try and be a part of that team,” Stewart said. “That’s one of my goals. I’m working hard. I’ll be working hard this summer for it. When it gets time for the training camp I’m going to go out and play basketball and if it happens it happens.”
Whether it happens or not, she’ll be back at UConn in the fall.
“Stewie is talented and she works really hard,” UConn guard Bria Hartley said. “It’s just so hard for people to defend her because she can score in so many ways. She’s 6-4 and she’s able to hit the three, she can drive by you, she will post you up inside. How can you stop someone who can literally do everything on the court? The crazy thing is that she is good now, but just imagine how much better she is going to be the next two years.”
Auriemma is imagining it.
“I think if Stewie really works at it, and I think she will, if she becomes a much better ballhandler, like she can catch the ball and really go anywhere with it that she wants, I think there will be no guarding her ever, on any level,” Auriemma said. “Right now she is kind of a catch-and-shoot player either in the post or on the perimeter. But once she gets to where she just gets the ball and she just goes wherever she wants … If Stewie adds that to her game, then it’s over. Then there is no guarding her no matter what.”
The North Syracuse, N.Y. native will enter her junior year with 1,274 points, 553 rebounds, 157 assists, 104 steals, and 184 blocked shots. And she’ll have a whole new set of goals.
How did she do with the ones she set this season?
“I reached all of them,” Stewart said. “Winning the national championship tied the knot.”