The opening moments of UConn’s final possession during the Big East tournament championship game served to illustrate what’s so polished and unfinished about Breanna Stewart.
When Kelly Faris’ pass to the right flank carried high and far Stewart needed to flag it down with one hand. And she did with a remarkable show of instinct and athleticism.
But once with it, her next step was not quite as definitive, setting into motion the sequence that led to Notre Dame’s winning basket with 1.8 seconds left Tuesday at the XL Center.
“Stewie made a great catch,” Geno Auriemma said. “And the next time she is in that situation, after she catches it, she is going to square up, attack the basket, score and get fouled.
“But she is too young to understand that right now. It is one of those plays where you only need two [points] and foul or just a foul. When Stewie caught it, I thought we were in great shape.”
Stewart’s freshman season has been one of alteration and adaptation, not unlike those experienced by every other rookie in UConn history.
But when you are the national high school player of the year, as Stewart was in 2011-12, the bar is set above the rim.
“Coach always says he expects you play at a level above your years [class],” said sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who preceded Stewart as high school player of the year. “And being asked to do more than people expect is not something that should surprise you when you come to Connecticut.”
After scoring 20 or more points in three of her first four games, and scoring more points in her first 10 (169) than any player in UConn history, Stewart’s offensive game slowed.
She scored 20 just once during her final 18 regular-season games and averaged just 9.6 points. She was scoreless in seven minutes against Baylor, two in 12 minutes at South Florida, five in 40 minutes in triple overtime at Notre Dame on March 4.
She scored single-digits eight times over the final two-thirds of the season.
But she was one of UConn’s brightest lights in the Big East tournament, scoring 51 points in its three games – the same amount Diana Taurasi had in her first conference championship.
Her play in the second half of the title game against Notre Dame was exemplary. She led UConn back from an 11-point deficit to tie the score at 59 by making 5-of-8 shots and scoring 12 points.
“Breanna played amazingly well,” Stefanie Dolson said. “I was extremely proud of her during the Big East tournament. I think she emerged from her shell by not second-guessing herself and just playing basketball. We are going to need her. She showed up [Tuesday] and we are going to need her going forward.”
Stewart averaged a team-high 17.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 30.3 minutes in the tournament and made the all-tournament team.
“I’m not a different player, but some things about me [her game] are starting to show that weren’t before,” Stewart said. “In the second half [Tuesday] I felt like it was how I want to play, that’s the type of player I know I am. But I just can’t show it one half. I need to start doing it for a complete game to help us to win.”
That brings us back to the final play against the Irish on Tuesday, the one which began with 18 seconds to play and the ball in Faris’ hands at mid-court.
When Stewart caught the ball, she was somewhat off-balance when she landed.
“I wasn’t in the right spot to be able to just put it up at that point, but I think that I could have looked to be more aggressive by taking the ball to the basket,” she said.
Auriemma was thinking the same thing and later lamented not taking a timeout to settle things down. Instead, he watched Stewart return ball to Faris, who circled around and headed down the baseline, only to find her path blocked.
That led to a pass to the far left corner to Mosqueda-Lewis. In the process of catching it, the sophomore had to leave her feet and was heading out of bounds as she landed.
That led to her attempt to loop at pass back out to Bria Hartley. And that’s where Skylar Diggins stepped in to intercept it and lead the break down the floor which ended with Natalie Achonwa’s basket and UConn’s demise.
“I was thinking we should take the last shot of the game,” Stewart said. “Maybe I should have shot the ball. Maybe it’s something I need to think about and work on going into practice and the NCAA Tournament.”
UConn will find out Monday which region, and against whom the path to a possible eighth championship will begin.
But one thing is certain: The Huskies will need a strong, productive Stewart.
“I had an inkling Stewie would play better than she has in a while because she practiced better [before the Big East tournament] than she has in a while.
“Stewie is used to playing USA Basketball, where you play eight or nine games then you go back home. She thinks three games [in the Big East] and then maybe six after that is her way of doing this.
“Five months [the regular-season], maybe she said ‘That’s not what I signed up for, man.’
“So I think she is in her comfort zone now.”