By Carl Adamec
HARTFORD, Conn. — Breanna Stewart chose to play for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team for the same reason many of the Huskies did — she wants to win championships.
The freshman forward saw the Big East regular season title slip away from UConn in South Bend last week. But with their 64-51 win over Syracuse Monday night at the XL Center, the second-seeded Huskies are in position to play for the Big East tournament crown. The five-time defending champions will take on No. 1 Notre Dame Tuesday at 7 p.m.
“I need to be aggressive and play the way I’m capable of playing and comfortable playing,” Stewart said. “One of the big things last week was I needed to be strong with the ball and there were a couple of times in crucial situations that I wasn’t as strong as I could have been and I lost it or bobbled it. I need to be strong and aggressive.
“Being in this environment with the Big East championship on the line … We’re in this tournament to win it and that is what we’re going to try and do.”
Stewart had 14 points and seven rebounds in the win Monday over her hometown team Monday to follow up on the 21-point, six-rebound effort Sunday against DePaul.
“Confidence is a huge component in anything,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Playing well these last two games makes Stewie more confident than she was a week ago. But it’s still her first Big East tournament championship game. Hopefully she’ll respond the way I think she will.”
Stewart had eight points in the first half as the Huskies (29-3) built a 15-point lead. Syracuse (24-7) later cut a 19-point deficit to 13 but Stewart answered with a 3-pointer. She also converted a layup off a pass from Kelly Faris with 11:14 left after the Orange had pulled within nine.
“I want to be able to step up and take those shots,” Stewart said. “We knew coming in that Syracuse was going to play zone and we had to find the gaps. One of them was the middle, 15-foot range. I flashed there a couple of times and got my jump shot.”
Stewart had her share of struggles in the two regular season losses to Notre Dame. That the Irish won the title outright was part of the reason Jewell Loyd got the edge over Stewart for the Big East Freshman of the Year award.
But Stewart is here to win championships and there’s a second chance Tuesday.
“These past two games have helped with my confidence and I want to keep building on what has happened so far,” Stewart said. “I think we’re all excited to play. We have things that we need to focus on. Tonight it was a little bumpy in the second half, but we’re all getting on the same page and creating a nice rhythm. If we can carry it over to tomorrow that will really help.”
Big East final
Auriemma didn’t coach UConn’s first appearance in the Big East tournament final in 1989 after being suspended by the school for a scheduling issue. Of course, he figured the Huskies would make 22 of the next 24 finals to make it up for it, right?
The Hall of Famer laughed.
“That’s pretty good,” Auriemma said. “That’s of little comfort in the world we live in now. If you didn’t win tonight, last night, or tomorrow night, nothing else matters. But maybe when people look back down the road at and say. ‘The Big East Conference had a huge impact on the game of women’s basketball coming out of nowhere and it changed the face of it for the good.’ We’ll look back on that when we’re done but right now it’s all about one game.”
UConn has won 18 tournament titles. Villanova and St. John’s is next with three. Notre Dame has a national championship and four NCAA Final Four appearances, but is 0-6 (all the losses to UConn) in Big East tournament finals.
“We wanted to play in South Bend, that might have helped us,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “We’re going to go in with the same mindset we did in both the games this year. But it’s tough to beat a good team three times, it really is.”
If UConn wins Tuesday, it will be its 20th straight year with a Big East title, either the regular season or tournament title. The next longest streak is three, last done by Rutgers (2005-07).
“A lot of people did a ton of work to get this program where it’s at,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “Coach wants it for us and we have to go out there and want it for us.”
Senior Kayla Alexander became the first Syracuse player to reach the 2,000-point plateau when she sank a free throw with 1:40 left.
“She has probably improved more from freshman year to senior year than any kid in the league right now or that I can remember in recent memory,” Auriemma said. “She has put herself in a situation that in our league we have three of the best centers in America and she is certainly one of them.”
After the postgame press conferences were complete, Alexander made her way towards the UConn locker room to thank Auriemma for the kind words.
“I feel blessed that he said that and I will use that as focus and motivation to continue to improve my game,” Alexander said. “I’m very flattered.”