MVP Stewart leads UConn to title

By Carl Adamec

Geno Auriemma wasn’t around at the end of the last game the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team lost in a regular season tournament. The Huskies’ coach picked up two technical fouls and was ejected on Dec. 29, 1992, as UConn fell to Vanderbilt in the first round of the Hilton Head Shootout in South Carolina.

Fast forward almost 20 years and Auriemma was pretty much all smiles Saturday night as freshman Breanna Stewart paced UConn to the Paradise Jam championship in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Stewart scored 17 points as the second-ranked Huskies routed No. 14 Purdue 91-57 in the Paradise Jam final round. The Syracuse, N.Y., native was named the tourney’s Most Valuable Player after averaging 19.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in wins over Wake Forest, Marist, and Purdue. She is the second freshman to win MVP honors in the 13-year history of the event. UConn’s Maya Moore in 2007 was the first.

“She showed over the three games that she has a lot of ways to help our team,” Auriemma told SNY’s Kerith Burke after the win. “She just has an awful lot of skills that over three games in one place people are going to notice. She’s only going to get better and that’s why we’re all smiling.”

Stewart also had four rebounds, four assists, and three blocked shots as the Huskies pushed their winning streak in regular season tournament games to 49.

“Obviously, you remember having a great experience with the team, going out and winning three games and winning the whole thing, and having a fun time doing it,” Stewart told SNY’s Burke. “No we’re going to go home and practice and prepare for the next game.”

The Huskies will fly home Sunday, go back to class Monday, and prepare for Wednesday night’s game against Colgate at the XL Center in Hartford (7 p.m., SNY).

UConn (5-0) won its tourney games over Wake Forest, Marist, and Purdue by an average of 45.7 points. It never trailed at any point.

Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis averaged 15.3 points and 5.0 rebounds in the event. Stewart and Mosqueda-Lewis were the only players that averaged double figures even though UConn averaged 89.0 points.

“The easy answer is we came down here to win three games and we did,” Auriemma said. “But with that there was a lot of really, really good stuff that came out of it and just enough other stuff to make sure we have to go home and practice once in awhile. But I was happy with the way we played all three games and we played three completely different styles of teams. I thought we adjusted really, really well to all three of them.

“It was a long trip and I’m really proud of the way they handled themselves.”

UConn opened Saturday night’s game with an 11-0 run. Baskets by Stewart, Kelly Faris, and Stewart off a pass from Stefanie Dolson got it started. Faris then hit a 3-pointer and Stewart returned the favor to Dolson for a layup. Purdue was 0-for-5 from the field with six turnovers before Drey Mingo beat the Huskies’ defense down the floor for a layup.

The Huskies built its lead to 20 on a Mosqueda-Lewis free throw after a technical foul on Purdue coach Sharon Versyp with 3:41 left in the period. The Boilermakers got back-to-back treys from KK Houser to cut it to 38-24, but Bria Hartley’s layup gave UConn a 46-26 halftime lead.

Consecutive 3-pointers by Courtney Moses and April Wilson made it 48-32 but UConn put it away with a 10-0 run. Stewart hit two free throws, Caroline Doty nailed a trey and set up Mosqueda-Lewis for a conventional three-point play, and Dolson scored off a rebound.

The Huskies’ biggest lead was 40 at 81-41.

Mosqueda-Lewis (15), Hartley (12), and Dolson (10) also scored in double figures for UConn.

Courtney Moses had 22 points for Purdue (5-1). The Boilermakers were 13-for-22 from 3-point land and 6-for-29 from inside the arc.

“Going in, we knew Purdue has great guard play and they have the ability to shoot the lights out,” Auriemma said. “We knew that all we could do was get a hand in their face and make it tough for them to make shots but they made a couple shots from really deep. Sometimes you just have to give credit to the kids shooting the ball.”

The Paradise Jam also marked the return to the lineup of Hartley, who missed the first two games of her career with a left ankle injury. The junior All-American came off the bench in all three games over the three days. In 15.3 minutes per outing, she averaged 7.0 points on 72.7 percent shooting from the floor and 3.0 assists.

“In the first couple games I felt a little out of place and out of rhythm,” Hartley said. “But I got in more of a groove tonight and felt better and was really happy with the way the team played tonight.”

Earlier Saturday in the Virgin Islands, Marist defeated Wake Forest 81-66 in the third-place game.