BY CARL ADAMEC
It was just a meaningless scrimmage played in front of a few family and friends between the United States U-17 and U-18 national teams late last May at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Kissimmie, Fla.
But when it’s a basketball game and there is a winner and loser, it’snot meaningless to Breanna Stewart. So with her U-18 team trailing by nine, Stewart scored eight points in a 10-0 run that erased the deficit then had two assists, three rebounds, and two blocks as her team secured a seven-point win.
“She blew me away when I saw her,” said former University of Connecticut standout and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo, who was in attendance. “When it was time for the game to be won she took it over. She turned it up when it was time to do so. She’s a winner and has a killer instinct.”
Lobo would tweet later that week that Stewart “could make a WNBA roster now.” Yes, now.
“She’s good enough. She has all the skills,” Lobo said. Fortunately for Lobo’s alma mater, Stewart will be first honing her skills at UConn for the next four years. She’ll make her regular season debut Sunday when the second-ranked Huskies host College of Charleston at Gampel Pavilion.
“To be a part of UConn basketball is awesome,” Stewart said. “It’s a special thing to be a part of. It’s like a big family and I can’t tell you how excited I am to be here.”
Stewart, a 6-foot-4 forward from Syracuse, N.Y., was the nation’s No. 1 recruit and consensus Player of the Year after leading Cicero-North Syracuse High to a state championship a season ago by averaging 26.4 points and 13.9 rebounds.
She’s also made her name with her play for USA Basketball. She’s been a member of four youth national teams, winning gold each time. She was a member of the U-19 world championships all-tournament team in 2011 and the Most Outstanding Player of the 2012 FIBA Americas U-18 Tournament.
Last year she became the first high school player since Nancy Lieberman in 1975 to represent the U.S. in the Pan-American Games, averaging a double-double.
“On our teams, generally everyone is fairly skilled,” USA Basketball women’s national team director Carol Callan said. “What sets Breanna apart is her relentless pursuit of the basketball. If there’s an offensive or defensive rebound to have, she has the athletic ability, wiry physique, and desire to grab it. Her hustle to the ball, the way she goes after every loose ball and uncommonly can get to every loose ball are things that energizes her teammates and sets her apart. In addition to all of that, she has increased her range. She's now a 6-4 athlete who can play and score from five positions.
“Off the court, she’s devoted to representing our country. Yet even though she’s as talented as she is, she’s loved by her teammates as a peer and as a leader.”
At UConn, she’s part of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class along with Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson. Coach Geno Auriemma usually downplays the impact freshmen will have on his team. That hasn’t been the case with Stewart.
“What kid coming into college can you remember has accomplished as much at the international level as Breanna Stewart?” Auriemma said. “To say, ‘I don’t know how she’ll do against college kids,’ when she’s dominated at every age group she’s played in, including kids that are older. She’s a freshman. There are times she’s going to look horrible. When you add up the season at the end, she’s going to be a
Lobo isn’t surprised by Auriemma’s rare praise for a rookie.
“That’s how much confidence he has in her,” Lobo said. “But Breanna’s got her head screwed on so perfectly that he can say whatever he wants and it’s not going to change her. I’d be shocked if she’s one that has a crisis of confidence at some point. She has this vibe about her. It’s great.”
Stewart had played with current Huskies Tuck, Jefferson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Stefanie Dolson, and Bria Hartley before arriving on campus.
The others are already enjoying their time on the floor with her.
“Ah, Stewie. She is going to be fun to play with,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “She’s a great player and when you look at her you don’t expect that at all. But then she can do this, do that, and do that, too. She’s very versatile and can do just about anything. When she first got here, working without the coaches, she was really good. So imagine when she gets used to that how good she is going to be.
“She’s different. She handles the ball like a decent point guard and she’s a good shooter. She’s athletic. She’s a post player that can play inside and out. What’s great is that I can throw it up there and she’ll go get it wherever it is with those long arms of hers. It’s going to be fun.”
The praise from Auriemma and others for Stewart has some wondering if there’s added pressure being put on the freshman.
But Stewart isn’t concerned. She knew what she was getting into coming to Uconn. In exhibition wins over Division II schools Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Holy Family, she averaged 18.0 points and 6.0 rebounds.
“I have the highest expectations for myself,” Stewart said. “No one else has them. I’m the one that always wants to get better. I’m always willing to work and do what it takes to get better. What people think about me are things that I have already thought of myself. I won’t tell people what my expectations are because I just don’t talk about those things.
“I try to be a humble person. I don’t want to talk about myself much. It’s something my parents and my coaches growing up instilled in me and I’m grateful for that.”
The only thing Stewart lacks at the college level is experience. She has everything else going for her, particularly her confidence.
“A lot of freshmen are afraid,” Auriemma said. “They’re afraid to make mistakes, afraid to mess up, afraid of what I think they just did. She’s not afraid. And when you’re not afraid you have a chance to be good.
“She plays at her pace. That’s probably why she gets a lot done. She’s never rushed. She doesn’t struggle to do things. There’s a nice flow to her game. And she was like that even when she was young. She doesn’t carry herself like D (Diana Taurasi) did. But she has a quiet confidence about her.
“I don’t know if she’ll come in and lead the conference in scoring and rebounding and blocked shots. She’s not going to do that. But I do know that she’s going to be exactly what our team needs. She can do all the things that we weren’t able to do last year. Maybe that’s why I’m so high on her.”
And why the Huskies have high hopes for the upcoming season.
“I know I’ll be nervous that first game,” Stewart said. “But I’m excited to get started.”