There are moments when the national magnitude of UConn women’s basketball shines even brighter than it usually does. One of them occurred before Tuesday’s 50-point belly laugh over Houston at Gampel Pavilion.
In a pregame ceremony, five of UConn’s nine core players were honored for winning gold last summer playing for USA Basketball in the World University Games and the FIBA U-19 World Championship.
And if Stefanie Dolson hadn’t been mending her injured foot, she would have joined Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Morgan Tuck, Moriah Jefferson, Bria Hartley and Breanna Stewart at midcourt
As if it wasn’t already plainly obvious, this UConn program, now with 22 straight wins, knows how to assemble and develop talent.
But standing even taller, literally and figuratively, is Stewart, the sensational 6-foot-4 sophomore, who on Tuesday was named USA Basketball’s Player of the Year for the second time. And she doesn’t turn 20 until August.
Only Diana Taurasi, Teresa Edwards, Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie and Cheryl Miller, the Mount Rushmore of women’s basketball, had ever done it before. And by the time she is done, she may win it a few more times.
“Breanna is a special player and a special person,” Tuck said. “I think she’s on the track to be one of those legendary players that little girls 20 years from now will be talking about. She has a God-given talent and she works hard. And she has a good mindset about it all/ She’s humble. When you are given all those things, you should be able to go out and show it [off].”
As UConn continues to chase its ninth national championship, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it has another seminal star in Stewart, a player with the rare combination of physical and athletic gifts.
In just 52 games, she has already scored 792 points. But she is also the team’s top shot-blocker (46) with another six against the Cougars. She is averaging just over eight rebounds this season.
Last season, she became just the fourth freshman in history to be the Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four after breaking UConn’s program record for scoring in NCAA Tournament with 105 (in just five games).
“You know, because I’ve known her for so long and we’ve been teammates for so long, I just think of her as Stewie,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “But when I look at her as a player, you see all the potential, even after winning the award [USA Basketball].
“You realize how much better she can be. There is no limit for her. She is a 6-4 post player who can shoot threes, handle the ball, blocks shots and is improving on defense. There is no other player as complete as she is.”
Last summer, Stewart helped lead the U.S. to gold at the 2013 FIBA U19 world championship where she was named MVP of the 16-team tournament. Stewart also was on the 2011 FIBA U19 world championship team, one of just three U.S. female athletes to have played on two USA U19 world championship teams.
In 2013, Stewart started in all nine games, averaging 16.9 points, 24.7 minutes and 6.2 rebounds. She shot 50.9 percent from the field, 58.3 percent from three-point range (14-for-24) and 89.7 percent from the free throw line.
And now, the next step seems inclusion on the highest levels, the 2014 World Championship team and the 2016 Olympic team, both coached by UConn’s Geno Auriemma.
“Stewie has always felt honored to be part of USA Basketball; it’s one of the most important things to her,” Auriemma said. “She’s never passed up an opportunity to participate and [during her career] she’s played at her age group, she’s played up [at older levels] as high as three years and always performs at a really high level.
“She has a really strong commitment and I think USA basketball appreciates the commitment that she has. Some people you have to ask ten times and Stewie you don’t have to ask at all. You just tell her when training camp is and she shows up and whatever team she’s on usually wins a gold medal.”
Stewart says the award, in her mind, is just being invited to play for the country.
“Whenever I hear from USA Basketball about playing in the summer, I am always willing to do it,” Stewart said. I always think ahead regarding my summer. And aside from being home with my family, there is nothing I would rather do more than play USA Basketball. It’s one of my favorite things to do. You create a lot of great relationships with many people.”
Its very likely Stewart will be given every opportunity to make the World Championship team, despite her youth. And by the time the 2016 Summer Games begin, right after what would be her rookie season in WNBA, she might be starting.
“I’m not surprised that USA basketball thinks that highly of her. She’s certainly earned it and there’s probably a lot more gold medals in her future,” Auriemma said.
And that accomplishment would only add another line item to an already impressive resume.
“USA Basketball has been something I’ve enjoyed doing and its helped me learn a lot through basketball. They also gave me opportunities to travel across the world,” Stewart said. “Having the chance to be a part of the Olympics and win a gold medal is on top of my goals to accomplish. There is nothing better than that. You are playing at the highest level, representing your country. If I get the chance to do that someday, it would be very humbling.