TAMPA, Fla. — There may be no greater love a father can show for his daughter than to drive about five hours to watch the University of Connecticut women's basketball team play hapless Pittsburgh on a Tuesday night.
So there was Brian Stewart in his seat at the XL Center Tuesday night, following his ride from North Syracuse, N.Y., to see his 18-year-old girl, Breanna, in action.
The freshman forward came through for the Huskies with 15 points, nine rebounds, four assists, and four blocked shots in a 40-point rout of the Panthers. Afterward there was time for a father/daughter reunion, as there is every game he attends.
"He'll talk to me, but he also makes sure that he listens to me," Breanna Stewart said in describing a typical conversation. 'He knows me best, obviously with my mom. He usually knows what's going on in my mind and that helps. He's there to talk to, to get everything out. And then he helps me try to move forward.
"There's tough love and a soft love when we talk. I like both. I want his honest opinion and he's going to tell me what he thinks."
With back-to-back solid games under her belt, Stewart will try to continue towards a solid finish as the third-ranked Huskies wrap up the regular season with a two-game road trip starting Saturday against South Florida at the Sun Dome (noon, SNY).
Stewart is averaging 12.9 points and team highs of 6.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots. She's had her ups and downs like all freshmen outside of a Maya Moore have, but there haven't been as many ups and too many downs for her liking.
"I think we all know that during the transition from high school to college that everything is not going to go the way you want it to because if it did then it would be too easy," Stewart said. "I knew about it but I would have rather it not happen.
"Obviously you notice it more after a loss but I haven't been playing my greatest through many of the games. I need to start playing better."
Nothing was worse than the 76-70 loss to No. 1 Baylor on Feb. 18. Her first stint on the floor lasted 23 seconds as she got lost defensively on an inbounds play and was replaced by coach Geno Auriemma. She totaled seven minutes and had no points, no rebounds, no assists, and no blocked shots.
Fortunately for her, she had her father to talk with afterwards.
"It was a pretty, I would say, productive conversation," Stewart said. "It was late. I'm glad I talked to him. I think I figured some things out and got a lot of stuff off my chest and it made me feel better and gave me a better mindset moving forward."
What was the gist of the conversation?
Stewart just smiled.
She's averaged 15.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks in two wins since.
"It's tough when everyone starts pointing out, 'You're not doing this. You're not doing that,' " UConn senior Kelly Faris said. "She comes in as this All-American and everyone expects her to be the best player that's ever come through here. For a freshman in college, that's a lot to live up to. For her to start pulling out of it and get back to the way she knows how to play is good for her."
And it’s definitely good for UConn, too.
"These last two games have built her confidence and this is the kind of thing we need from her," said UConn's Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who was the 2012 Big East Freshman of the Year. "Stewie needs to know what she is capable of, regardless of who it's against. She's been doing well in practice and our practice players are tough, and so are our players. It's carried over to games and hopefully it will carry over to this weekend."
The Huskies (26-2 overall, 13-1 Big East) trail Notre Dame by a game in the league race with two to go. The Irish can clinch a least a share of its second straight regular season title by taking care of Providence Saturday at Alumni Hall before playing host to UConn Monday night at the Joyce Center in South Bend.
If the Huskies and Irish finish league play tied at 15-1 having split their two meetings, UConn will be the No. 1 seed for the Big East tournament. The Huskies get the call based on the results against Marquette (2-0 for UConn, 1-0 for Notre Dame).
Of course there's USF (19-8, 8-6), which is looking for a big win to secure a NCAA tournament berth, to take care of first.
"If we lose Saturday, Monday won't mean as much," Stewart said.
Much was expected from Stewart coming into the year as the nation's top high school recruit. A big weekend to end the regular season could help the Huskies win a championship.
And that's why she came to UConn.
"When we were playing well with her in the lineup she was doing a whole bunch of things," Auriemma said. "Then when the game got away from her she stopped being aggressive, she started being tentative with the ball and just settling for jump shots outside the arc. The last couple of games she has gotten more involved in more different places at both ends of the floor. I think she feels a lot better about herself now.
"The only thing I can do or any of the other coaches can do is keep putting her out there in the right spots and the rest is up to her. If Stewie goes into the weekend confident and feeling good about herself and stays aggressive, she'll help us win both those games. If she doesn't, then we'll struggle. Hopefully, she'll do a bunch of things this weekend that we know she can do."