By Carl Adamec
Even Breanna Stewart would have to admit that 2013 has been a pretty good year so far.
After helping the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team to an eighth national championship and being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player in April, the North Syracuse, N.Y. native added to her trophy case and gold-medal collection Sunday.
Stewart had 16 points, nine rebounds, and three blocked shots and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player as the United States national team won its fifth straight gold medal at the FIBA U-19 world championships by walloping France 61-28 in Klaipeda, Lithuania.
“She’s such a special player and just when you think she’s tapped out, she’s getting better,” Team USA coach Katie Meier of Miami (Fla.) said. “Even throughout this tournament, she faced a lot of different defenses and a lot of different strategies. She’s patient and she hunts her shots when we need her. She rose to the occasion and that’s kind of her M.O.
“It’s a joy. She is joyful. She is just so fun to coach. Before the game when we were in the hotel lobby, I said, ‘I just want you to know, I came to win.’ And she’s like ‘I got you coach.’ It was like, ‘wow.’ The kid’s got all that pressure on her and she told me she got me. She’s a champion.”
It’s the fifth gold medal overall for Stewart and second in U-19 competition. She was named to the all-tournament in 2011. Her other gold medals came at the 2009 FIBA Americas U-16 tournament, the 2010 FIBA U-17 world championships, and the 2012 FIBA Americas U-18 tournament.
“This was different because I had a different role,” Stewart said. “Usually I’m not one of the older players and coming into this I was looked as a veteran because I’ve been in these situations before. I obviously had to play well and lead my team at the same time.
“I was just having fun this tournament. I was really looking forward to it. Shots were falling, which is always very nice. But the gold is the most important thing.”
UConn’s Morgan Tuck won her fourth gold medal, with the 2010 FIBA U-17 world championships, 2011 FIBA U-19 world championships, and the 2012 FIBA Americas U-18 tournament being the other.
UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph was at Sunday’s final. Head coach Geno Auriemma had attended second-round games before heading back to the United States to recruit.
“To come out here and do it twice and with a totally different team, I think it just accounts to what USA Basketball is all about, winning gold medals,” Tuck said of her second title in 2013.
It’s the second gold medal for the Huskies’ Moriah Jefferson with the first at the FIBA Americas U-18 tournament.
Stewart averaged 16.9 points — shooting 50.9 percent from the floor, 58.3 percent from 3-point land, and 89.7 percent from the foul line — to go along with 6.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots.
“I feel like she really came out, played her game, didn’t worry about anything else and just showed what Breanna Stewart can do,” Tuck said.
Tuck averaged 13.1 points — shooting 47.2 percent from the floor, 27.3 percent from 3-point land, and 75.0 percent from the foul line — to go along with 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals.
Jefferson averaged 4.0 points — shooting 27.7 percent from the floor, 15.4 percent from 3-point land, and 80.0 percent from the foul line — to go along with 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals. Her assist-to-turnover ratio was better than 3-to-1.
Joining Stewart on the all-tournament team were France’s Olivia Epoupa, Australia’s Stephanie Talbot, Spain’s Astou Ndour, and Canada’s Jamie Weisner.
Team USA had to hold on to beat France by six during second-round Group F pool play last Wednesday.
And France hung in there with the Americans into the third quarter in its search for its first gold medal. Team USA led by as many as 12 before settling for a 27-20 at halftime lead.
It was still just 37-26 when the Americans took command. Stewart had seven points and Duke’s Alexis Jones five in a 20-0 run as Team USA held France scoreless for 9:45. The celebration was soon on.
“We really wanted to make a third-quarter run and we did that starting with our defense that led to transition offense,” Stewart said.
“We just said that when push comes to shove, you win championships with your defense,” Meier added. “So go out there and lock down and stay together as a team. That was just an amazing performance.”
The last time the Americans did not win U-19 gold was in 2001 when the team coached by UConn’s Geno Auriemma and led by Diana Taurasi finished third in the Czech Republic.
Jones and Bashaara Graves added nine points each for Team USA. Tuck finished with six points and four rebounds, while Jefferson had four points, five assists, and four steals.
Australia defeated Spain 73-68 for the bronze medal.