By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — Breanna Stewart doesn’t want a pass because she’s a freshman and doesn’t expect one. She expects that when the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team is involved in an important game like Saturday’s against Notre Dame, she’s going to deliver.
A rough game at the start had a tough ending for the Huskies’ forward, playing her first game before a sellout crowd at Gampel Pavilion. She had two shots to give top-ranked UConn a lead in the final 30 seconds but missed both. And when Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’ 3-point shot with 0:06 left hit the rim and eventually ended up in the hands of Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins, the No. 5 Irish danced off the floor with a key 73-72 Big East win.
“It’s always frustrating because you want to play your best in the big games like this,” Stewart said. “Obviously the first half wasn’t great but I wanted to at least come out and try to have a good second half. There are still things that I need to work on, a lot of things. I would like it if my shot would go in and be aware of everything on the court. I know teams are going to hit me and I need to embrace the physical play.
“I have a lot to improve on. In 13 games there have been good things. There have also been bad things and I’m looking to fix those.”
Stewart was 5-for-17 from the floor but didn’t make anything outside of the paint. Notre Dame (12-1 overall, 1-0 Big East) outscored UConn (12-1, 0-1) by 10 in the 22 minutes she was on the floor and she didn’t get on the scoreboard until 11:34 remained. She finished with 10 points, nine rebounds, and six blocked shots. If the numbers were 12, 9, and 6, people would be talking about a lot of different things as the Huskies look ahead to Wednesday’s game at Georgetown (7:30 p.m., SNY).
“That’s not a bad day except when you think about ‘She’s Breanna Stewart.’ ” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “So 10 points, nine rebounds, six blocks … She almost had a triple double and you go, ‘Wow, man, she sucked today.’ But I think it’s what we expect of her and what the expectation level is of her. Things that happened and the shots that she missed that we’ve just come to expect, ‘Yeah, she’s going to make all of those.’ It’s just another reminder that she’s a freshman and freshmen do freshmen things. Sometimes in big spots they do great things and sometimes in big spots they do freshmen things. She played OK, not what we’ve come to expect.”
It was two free throws by Diggins with 49.4 seconds left that gave Notre Dame the lead for good. The two-time All-American and reigning Big East Player of the Year finished with 19 points but did commit half of her team’s 14 turnovers.
As an upperclassman she’s been a thorn in UConn’s side. But remember when she played here as a freshman three years ago? The Irish trailed 24-4 before they knew what hit them and Diggins would miss her first 10 shots from the floor as she was overwhelmed by the defense of Kalana Greene. In fact, she was a combined 8-for-38 shooting in three games against UConn that year.
Remember when Duke and its No. 1 recruiting class came to Gampel two years ago? It was 29-4 before the Blue Devils blinked as they got crushed 87-51.
That just happened to be the night Stewart gave her oral commitment to UConn.
“It’s not easy, but that’s what you come here for.” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “We’ve all been there. These are the ones you’re supposed to thrive in. These are supposed to be the fun games. It’s nerve wracking, but if you’re that type of player to come here you’ve got to get over that type of thing.
“And she still got some stuff done. But she knows it. We all know each of us has different things that we have to work on, and she knows there’s a lot that she’s going to have to come back and work on because there’s people out there that are better than us.”
Stewart is averaging 14.8 points on 52.9 percent shooting from the floor, 6.8 rebounds, and 1.8 blocked shots. She did have seven straight points against Stanford in the first-half run that all but put away the Cardinal but the numbers in the three games since Christmas are 7.7 points on 27.6 percent shooting and 5.7 rebounds.
She said she remains confident.
“I’m still going to take those shots,” Stewart said. “I know that I can make them because I made them before. I need to get back in the flow of it.
“I’m not going to say it’s difficult because as a freshman you want to be in those kinds of situations and you want to have the kind of pressure on you. It’s what you want and I need to learn to play through that. Yeah, I’m a freshman and I’m still learning. But at the same time I know how to play basketball, I think. It’s not like the game has changed, I need to keep learning the game.”
The next lesson is Monday at practice with Georgetown at McDonough Arena the game on deck.
“I would like to see her just go and take a deep breath and relax. I would like for somebody to go down to the Charter Oak Bridge and make sure that she doesn’t jump off,” Auriemma said with a laugh. “That would be a big help for us so then we get her back for Wednesday’s game.
“But I’d like to see her understand, ‘There’s things about the college game that I don’t know yet. There’s things that I have to get done that I’m not capable of doing yet.’ She looked out of sorts a little bit right from the beginning and struggled a little bit. But that’s part of the whole thing. It’s not easy being a freshman and playing in these games.”
Hall of Fame coach Al McGuire famously said that “the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.” That’s true of Stewart. But if the Huskies are to be the best they can be, they need her playing at a high level and that can’t wait till next year.