By Carl Adamec
They had the ups and downs just about all college freshmen have. But Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck, and Moriah Jefferson had the perfect ending to their rookie campaign as they helped the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team to its eighth national championship.
The trio continued their winning ways this summer as they led the United States national team to a gold medal at the FIBA U-19 world championships in Lithuania.
It was Hall of Fame coach Al McGuire that said, “the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.” According to UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph, who traveled to Klaipeda, Lithuania, for the U-19 medal-round games last month, that appears to be true for the Huskies’ Class of 2016.
“Based on what I saw I think they’ve all improved,” Ralph said. “Of course, it’s a different team with USA Basketball. But what I liked was the different leadership roles they all took and how they handled those responsibilities. All of them had a hand in it.”
For Team USA co-captains Stewart and Tuck, it was their second U-19 gold as they were also members of the 2011 squad. Stewart has won five gold medals playing USA Basketball while Tuck has four. It was the second in two years for Jefferson.
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma attended second-round pool play action in Panevezys before returning to the United States to recruit. Ralph then made the journey to watch the final three games of the tournament.
“It was great to be there for our players and to see them win the gold medal,” Ralph said.
Team USA finished 9-0 and wrapped up the gold medal with a 61-28 win over France in the final on July 28.
Stewart was named the tourney’s Most Outstanding Player. The North Syracuse, N.Y. native averaged 16.9 points — shooting 50.9 percent from the floor, 58.3 percent from 3-point land, and 89.7 percent from the foul line — to go along with 6.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots. She had 16 points and nine rebounds in the gold-medal game and 23 points and eight rebounds in the semifinals against Australia, building on her reputation as a big-game player.
She also was the MOP of the NCAA Bridgeport Regional and Final Four last April.
“Stewie leads by example,” Ralph said. “In one of the games I saw (against Australia) she scored 14 points in a 21-0 run to put her team in control. Whenever her team needed it, she would make the big shot or get the big rebound or make the big block.”
Tuck averaged 13.1 points — shooting 47.2 percent from the floor, 27.3 percent from 3-point land, and 75.0 percent from the foul line — to go along with 4.7 rebounds and 2.1 steals.
“Morgan was the captain on the floor and I really think she took that role to heart,” Ralph said. “It was leadership by example when it needed to be and she was vocal when she needed to be. For example, if there was a mix-up defensively she was the one to get on the players to make sure they were doing the right things and were in the right places. That was impressive to me.”
Jefferson averaged 4.0 points — shooting 27.7 percent from the floor, 15.4 percent from 3-point land, and 80.0 percent from the foul line — to go along with 3.9 assists and 1.5 steals. Her assist-to-turnover ratio was better than 3-to-1.
“Moriah did a good job running the team and getting the team into the offense,” Ralph said. “She didn’t shoot the ball that great in the games that I saw but she took care of it and was very good defensively. She was that real sparkplug a team needs.”
After the U-19 tournament, Stewart, Tuck, and Jefferson headed home for some summer vacation. But they’ll soon be back on campus as fall semester classes begin Aug. 26 and preseason workouts won’t be far behind.
The Huskies’ regular season opener is Nov. 9 against Hartford. They then face three teams that reached the 2013 NCAA tournament — Stanford at home, at Maryland, and at Penn State — in a seven-day span.
With only nine scholarship players on the roster, they cannot afford a sophomore jinx.
“To me, they’re not sophomores. They’re veterans,” Ralph said. “They’ve played in the Final Four and the national championship game. They’ve played on the big stages and they’ve played well. I expect to see them continue to grow. The mistakes they made as freshmen, well, they can’t make them anymore.
“I’m really looking forward to the season. I’m excited for when they get back to school and I’m sure when they get here that they’ll be ready to go.”