By Carl Adamec
HARTFORD, Conn. — One of the reasons Breanna Stewart chose to play for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team was that she believed the program gave her the best chance of making her dream of winning a national championship come true.
But the aftermath of her first NCAA title and the Huskies’ eighth overall has been even beyond her wildest dreams.
A crowd estimated at 10,000 braved a cool and blustery late afternoon Sunday to honor the 2013 national champions at a victory parade through the streets of Connecticut’s capital city. The parade was followed by a rally at the state capitol where the coaches and players were recognized.
“It’s just now starting to settle in,” Stewart said. “Obviously this was a week that no one will ever forget. Coming back to Connecticut and getting all this support on campus and here is awesome. I couldn’t have imagined it would be like this. It’s been great to be able to share the celebration and I’m just trying to take it all in.”
Stewart became the first UConn freshman to be named the Final Four Most Outstanding Players after the Huskies finished off their NCAA tournament run by beating Notre Dame 83-65 a week ago and Louisville 93-60 Tuesday night at New Orleans Arena. The North Syracuse, N.Y., native had 29 points, five rebounds, and four blocked shots against the Irish. She then had 23 points, nine rebounds, three assists, three blocked shots, and three steals in the rout of the Cardinals.
As UConn coach Geno Auriemma spoke about her at the rally, the fans began to chant, “Stewie, Stewie, Stewie.” Stewart, who was also MOP of the Bridgeport Regional, smiled.
“That was cool,” Stewart said. “To have all those people cheering for us was a nice feeling.”
The afternoon’s other big roar was reserved for senior Kelly Faris. She admitted her second parade was bittersweet because she’ll be moving on. She’ll be at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol Monday night to attend the WNBA Draft. Most projections have her going in the first round.
But one thing about a championship team is that you’re together forever.
“I believe that,” Faris said. “It doesn’t mean we’re going be around each other much or anything like that. But you have this common bond that no one can ever can take away from you.
“I know the first group I was with (in 2010), I talk to all of them all the time. And this group is even more special just from growing up throughout the year with them and what we accomplished together. It goes back to that common bond that very few people have and no one can take away.”
Auriemma knows that feeling.
“When you win a championship, I’m always one to think that teams are about feelings and emotions and the trust you build among your teammates,” Auriemma said. “What happens when you’re fortunate enough to win a championship, you look around and those people are going to be part of your life for the rest of your life. Every time they get together this is something that they’re going to talk about.
“The trophies are going to rust and the medals are going to get lost and the pictures will fade. But those kind of memories never go away.”
As the Huskies toured the city, they threw beads into the crowd. A number of fans threw items, such as basketballs, to the players to be autographed. But unlike past rallies, there were no predictions for next season from Auriemma.
But for Stewart, one celebration is not enough.
“Once you win one championship, you want to win another one. You want to do this all over again,” Stewart said. “Something like this makes all the work we put into it worth it.”