The mystery of how to motivate may forever keep Geno Auriemma foraging fingers into his temples, when he’s not running them through his hair.
As much as he knows, he’s still trying to solve what’s still unknown about getting a player to play to their potential. There is no schedule. There are no guarantees. There is only hope and the power of prayer.
Maybe when his new restaurant opens, Auriemma’s chef can conjure a pregame meal that brings out the best in kids.
If he does, it will be on the menu, the sauce sure to be a family secret.
“If we all knew what we had to feed [the players] the day before to make them wake up, we’d [coaches] all do it,” Auriemma said after Monday’s win over Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA’s Bridgeport Regional at Gampel Pavilion.
“But you can’t just get into someone’s head. You don’t know at what point they will finally decide that they don’t want to do this [play inconsistently] anymore.”
Over the two weeks, since before the Big East tournament began, Auriemma has noticed something stirring in freshman Breanna Stewart that has delighted him and his coaches.
Stewart, the high school player of the year last season, has had her moments, scoring a program-record 169 points her first 10 games. But since then, the moments had been irregular enough to cause concern.
“I think Breanna realized what time of the year it was,” Stefanie Dolson said. “We all need to be at the top of our game.”
So the question persisted: How could such a gifted athlete, who has spent much of her long USA Basketball career competing at levels above her age, do things like not score in seven minutes in UConn’s loss to No. 1 Baylor on Feb. 18?
“Maybe she was just over-thinking things,” Auriemma said. “Maybe all Breanna needed to do was come out and play and trust herself. She’d lost some of that for a time, now she’s regained it and she’s playing like it.”
To see Stewart now, even now that she’s dealing with a sore left calf, is to see glimpses of the highlights that captivated the country when she was in high school.
She is playing with flair, moving around the floor with a renewed confidence, even making her shots.
“I don’t know what it was [that changed], but maybe it was the realization that I wanted to start playing like I know I can play,” Stewart said after scoring 14 points in 27 minutes during UConn’s 77-44 win over the Commodores.
“There was no more time to waste. It was March. This was the time to do it. It’s not as easy as it looks … but if it could have happened a little earlier, it would have been really nice.”
Vanderbilt did what it could to try and stop Stewart, just as it did with Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (22 points). But not much of it succeeded.
“I didn’t think Breanna Stewart was that tall until I was standing next to her,” said Jasmine Lister, Vanderbilt’s 5 foot 4 guard. “She is very good. The way she shoots and carries herself; how quick she is. It’s incredible to me. She came off as so skilled and hard-working on offense and defense. You couldn’t get her out of her game whatsoever.”
Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb, who recruited Stewart, said what impressed her the most was Stewart’s work off the ball.
“She’s so aggressive defensively, that’s what surprised me,” Balcomb said. “I knew she could score. She is a scoring machine and can really stretch the defense. But I didn’t know she had that made that adjustment [defensively]. It is rare to today to see what she can do.”
Since the start of the Big East tournament, Stewart has scored 65 points in four games. She missed last Saturday’s first-round NCAA Tournament game against Idaho after straining her calf in practice earlier in the week.
Auriemma says he doesn’t know when or why the lights came back on for a player so accustomed to the limelight.
“I guess she decided to do the opposite, do the things coach asks me to do, and see what happens,” Auriemma said. “She did it the first day, then she did it the next [day]. And then she was even better the day after that. It was like a whole new world opened for her.
“I’ve seen Stewie do incredible things during practice. I asked her one day why those moments happen. And she said to me ‘When I don’t think about what I am doing, it just kind of happens for me.’”