UConn's Stewart looking for second straight title
STORRS, Conn. (AP) Breanna Stewart expects UConn to win its ninth national title next month.
She doesn't believe that's being cocky, it's knowing the Huskies can live up to expectations.
''Confidence and cocky are similar things, but they veer off at the very end,'' the Huskies star sophomore said. ''We know what we want to do. We know that this is the best time for basketball and it's the most important time for basketball, but we keep it to ourselves most of the time.''
Stewart has reason to be confident.
She's arguably the toughest matchup in the women's game.
The 6-foot-4 forward can play all five positions - she has the body of a center and the ball skills of a guard. Steward can dribble, post-up, shoot the 3-pointer or drive to the basket.
''How do you guard her, who do you put on her?'' asked former UConn star and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo. ''There is no one at her size really that can defend her on the perimeter, and smaller players can't handle her inside. Imagine a 6-4 Diana Taurasi.''
Lobo said if Stewart was to declare for the WNBA draft this season she would be the first pick, because of her skills, and because she's only getting better.
The national player-of-the-year candidate has led the top-ranked Huskies to an undefeated season and the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament, averaging 19.7 points and 8.1 rebounds a game.
''Any time we need a bucket, I think `Stewie' is our first option,''' guard Bria Hartley said. ''You know she's going to make those big shots.''
Stewart found her confidence as a freshman during last year's NCAA tournament, where she averaged almost 21 points and six rebounds.
She had 29 points, five rebounds, and four blocks to lead UConn to a 83-65 win over rival Notre Dame in the national semifinals. She scored 23 points in the Huskies' 93-60 rout of conference rival Louisville in the championship and was an easy pick as the Final Four's most outstanding player.
It was an eye-opening run after an inconsistent season that saw her average just over 13 points and score in double figures just four times in the final 10 games of the regular season.
She carried that confidence into the summer leading the Under-19 national team to a gold medal in the World Championships and being named USA Basketball's player of the year.
Her goal, this season, she said was be consistently good.
''That's something that she knew she had to do,'' said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. ''She definitely didn't want a replay of last season where she's great, she's average, she's terrible and then she's great. And I know that was really important to her, and you could tell from the very first day of practice that it was going to be different because once you start being consistent in practice then you're going to start being consistent in games.''
Stewart has been just that. She has led the Huskies leading scorer in 18 games this season, including the last five in a row and was named the American Athletic Conference player of the year. She's also had 94 blocked shots.
''She's a special player,'' Louisville coach Jeff Walz said in February. ''There's no question she's the best player in the country, in my opinion.''
The scary thing, her teammates say, is that she is just getting better.
As she did last year, she stepped up her play in the postseason, averaging Averaged 21.3 points and 7.0 rebounds in the AAC conference tournament.
''There are so many ways I can improve,'' Stewart said after scoring 20 points, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking four shots in the title game. ''Being able to do a lot of different things on the court, that means there are so many other things that you can get better at.''
Lobo said Stewart has a chance to surpass Taurasi and Maya Moore and go down in history as the best player in the history of UConn's women's basketball.
''There is a real possibility that (Stewart) could leave with four championships,'' Lobo said. ''That would be pretty amazing.''