Stewart’s return gives UConn lift

By Carl Adamec

HARTFORD, Conn. — Breanna Stewart didn’t want the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s game with Syracuse Saturday to end.

The freshman forward, back in action after missing two games with a sprained left ankle, scored 12 of her 20 points in the final 4:24 as the third-ranked Huskies put away the Orange 87-62 in Big East action before 14,786 at the XL Center.

“That end of the game I think I kept gaining momentum and gaining confidence,” Stewart said. “It was nice to see the ball go through the basket. Obviously, I wasn’t on the court the past two games and that was something I really wanted to do and I was looking forward to coming out and playing. So, obviously, when you make shots you’re going to feel better.

“I didn’t feel like I was favoring anything. I think that for the most part it’s healed. There’s just, obviously, a little swelling but that’s going to go away eventually.”

Stewart entered for the first time with 3:52 gone and played 22 minutes. She had eight points in the first half as UConn (16-1 overall, 4-1 Big East) took a 41-29 lead, and then 12 down the stretch after Syracuse (15-2, 3-1) had cut a 22-point deficit back to 12 with 5:09 remaining.

The Syracuse native, who led Cicero-North Syracuse High, to a New York state championship a year ago, finished 7-for-15 from the floor and 5-for-6 from the foul line. She added six rebounds.

“It definitely felt great just to come back with a pretty good performance, especially with the way we finished the game as a team,” Stewart said. “I was pretty confident with my shot. My confidence was just growing throughout the game. I was just planning on not thinking today and just going out and playing and getting the shots we talked about as a team.”

It was Stewart’s sixth 20-point game of the season but her first since Dec. 22 against Hartford. She averaged just 8.8 points in her previous four games to see her season average drop from 16.9 to 14.6.

“I think anybody that watches Breanna Stewart play can see there are things that happen on the basketball court that she’s able to do that are difficult for most players to do,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “And when she’s in an aggressive mode like she was today, in the second half especially … I would say that regardless of the level of competition pretty much, if Breanna goes out on the court and says, ‘I’m going to try to score 25 points today,’ it would be very difficult for her not to do that. The only thing that would hold her back is when she gets frustrated with herself, and then it kind of goes away. But when she stays positive and she decides that ‘I’m going to score tonight,’ she scores whenever she wants to.”

Saturday’s game may be the only chance Stewart gets to play her hometown team with Syracuse headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference at the end of the year. Ironically, Orange coach Quentin Hillsman was the first to offer her a scholarship the summer before her freshman year at Cicero-North Syracuse.

“I’ve seen Breanna play for a long time and she’s a great kid,” Hillsman said. “I wish her a lot of luck and a lot of success.”