TAMPA—When Breanna Stewart was a junior at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, more than a year before she would suit up for her first practice at the University of Connecticut, she would often check in with UConn coach Geno Auriemma to discuss her basketball goals and dreams. Once upon a time when Auriemma was trying to recruit players to come to tiny Storrs, Conn., he would sell them on the idea of building a program that could one day win an NCAA title. As the years went on and as Auriemma started collecting championships the way Meryl Streep collects Oscar nominations, his conversations with prospective recruits morphed into what the player wants out of UConn. Stewart had very definitive goals for Auriemma: She wanted to make the U.S. Olympic Team. She wanted to win Player of the Year awards. And she wanted something no other women’s college player had ever achieved.
“When we first started talking about me coming to Connecticut, [Auriemma] knew what my expectations were and what I wanted to get: I wanted to come to Connecticut and win four national championships,” Stewart said. “He said he would help me do that, but that it would take a lot of hard work. It has been a lot of hard work. But things have also turned out the way I wanted them to be.”
Whatever Stewart dreamed, it can’t be better than her reality. On Tuesday night in Tampa, UConn (38-1) won its third consecutive title in a grind-it-out 63-53 victory over Notre Dame (36-3) in front of 19,810 at Amalie Arena. The win gave Auriemma his 10th national championship, all at UConn, and he is an incredible 10-0 in title games, which ties him with UCLA’s John Wooden as the only Division I college basketball coaches to win 10 national championships. It also gave the junior Stewart her third straight title, putting her in position to do something no women’s college great—not Maya Moore, Cheryl Miller, Candace Parker, Sheryl Swoopes, Diana Taurasi—has ever achieved.
But this was not an easy game for Auriemma or his star player. It was physical, sloppy at times and uncomfortable for UConn until senior sharpshooter Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis delivered the dagger with just under five minutes to play. With UConn up 56-50 with 4:58 left, Mosqueda-Lewis, as she has done so often during her career, hit a transition three-pointer to give UConn a 59-50 lead. It was her 398th career three pointer—the most ever in women’s college basketball—and it was easily the biggest shot of the game. Mosqueda-Lewis then followed with a mid-range jumper to push UConn's lead to 11. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw called time out with 4:06 left, but the Irish had no more runs left.
Still, it’s important to note just how great a job McGraw did with her team. It was the youngest squad she had ever brought to the Final Four (two sophomores and one freshman in the starting lineup). More impressively, Notre Dame joins Tennessee (1995-99) and UConn (2000, 2002-04) as just the third program to play in four NCAA title games in a five-year span.
“We were expected to be here the past few years, but this one we were not,” said McGraw, whose Irish have lost all four of those appearances. “Someone told me only Pat [Summitt] and Geno have been to five straight Final Fours. That’s pretty darn good company and I am honored to be part of that. But I don’t think you appreciate it when you are going through it.”
UConn ultimately had too many weapons for Notre Dame, and the Huskies' best player on Tuesday night was junior point guard Moriah Jefferson. She finished with 15 points, including three 3-pointers, five assists and three steals, and harassed Notre Dame star Jewell Loyd (12 points on 4-for-18 shooting) all night.
“I feel the same way [Stewart] does,” Jefferson said. “I had the same goal coming in, wanting to win four national championships, and to be able to do it with these guys and to do it on the type of season we had, I can't be more proud of my teammates and I couldn't be happier.”
As she has finished each of her three seasons, Stewart was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, the first women’s player to win that honor three times, and tied Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only college basketball players to accomplish that feat. (Nice company, eh?.) But getting that award was a triumph of everything she did beyond scoring (4-for-8 for eight points). She finished with 15 rebounds and four blocks and was responsible for about a half-dozen Notre Dame shots that were off the mark because of her 6'4" presence. And she did it on a gimpy ankle.
"I've coached some great ones and Stewart's as good as anybody I've ever coached when the big moments come," said Auriemma.
After giving UConn a 20-15 lead on a jumper with 8:39 left in the opening half, Stewart took an awkward first step on UConn’s next possession while driving the lane and spilled on the court. She grimaced in pain and slowly made her way off the court, limping slightly. She then headed to end of her bench, removed her sneakers and socks and had her left foot and ankle re-taped. It was a dangerous time for UConn as Notre Dame cut the lead to three—the closest it would get for the rest of the game—before Stewart came back 80 seconds later.
“I knew I was coming back in, but it hurt,” Stewart said of the ankle. “I rolled it very nicely. But there is no way you are going to sit out a national championship game.”
Seeing Stewart reenter the game was a welcome site for Jeanniene Baldwin, Stewart's maternal grandmother, who bought two boxes at the arena and filled it with 22 friends and family members. It was a pro-UConn crowd at the Amalie Arena, and the fans saw the teams combine for 21 turnovers and some ugly shooting in the first half. The Irish went just 9-for-30 from the floor, while UConn wasn’t much better at 13-for-34. But UConn had the lead 31-23 heading into the break.
Where Jefferson came to her teammates’ aid in the second half of the title game, the team honored her after a late practice on Monday when they attended the WBCA Awards Show to see her receive the Nancy Lieberman Award, which is given to the best point guard in the nation. That was followed by dinner at Cafe Paradiso, an Italian restaurant in Tampa, and a team and family gathering at the team hotel to watch Duke beat Wisconsin in the men's national final.
On championship morning after breakfast, the UConn players hung out on a charter boat near the hotel followed by a shootaround, study hall and a pregame meal at 4:30. UConn is a program of routine and its championship dinner has not deviated over the years: Grilled chicken, green beans, pasta, tomato sauce, turkey meatballs, chicken noodle soup, rolls and fruit. (Other teams take note.)
The Huskies are a close team and the coaches have spoken how much they like the group and how much they like each other. Perhaps as a collective they take after Stewart, who is goofy and lighthearted. On the podium after the win, while being interviewed by ESPN’s Holly Rowe, Stewart said that Jefferson should have been named the Most Outstanding Player and then broke down in tears while attempting to answer another question. She tried to catch her breath, as if her body was finally exhaling after a long season. Earlier in the week, Auriemma was asked why Stewart seems to play her best when things matter most and he found himself perplexed.
“I don't know the answer to that question, and I don't know that anyone does,” Auriemma said. “I don't know that Stewy does. When you're recruiting somebody, you really try to distinguish why they are dominant. Are they dominant because physically they're just so much better than everybody else? That was the case with Stewy obviously ... One of the things that I thought was telling was that in all the USA Basketball experience that she's had, I think she's won more gold medals than anyone else in [USA history]. She always played above her age group. So she's always the youngest player playing with older kids and, yet, she was always on the all-tournament team or MVP or led the team in scoring or rebounding.
"Sometimes you recruit a kid and you think this kid's going to be it and they're not," Auriemma continued. "And sometimes you get pleasantly surprised. With Stewy we kind of knew she had it and then all she needed was a stage to prove it. And she's done it, man. I've coached some great ones and she's as good as anybody I've ever coached when the big moments come.”
Teams have attacked Stewart throughout her career by trying to be physical with her in the post, but she’s gotten stronger, physically and mentally .
“They try to beat her up a lot,” said UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph, “but to Stewy’s credit, she has worked on that. It’s tough when you are getting the crap smacked out of you, but she worked in the off-season for her to have an answer on whatever she sees.”
Now comes her final test. UConn will enter next season as the preseason No. 1 (Notre Dame is also a top 3 team) and the best-ever player questions will start to come with regular frequency for Stewart.
“When you think of the greatest ever, obviously, there is an element of subjectivity and that element of subjectivity we all come at with different opinions,” said ESPN’s Kara Lawson, an All-America guard at Tennessee and who speaks with the experience of having played against many of the short list of best-ever women’s players. “A lot of times I think style of play and player factors in. Some people just love the way Diana Taurasi plays. They love her swag, how she passes, her trash-talking. So for some people, no one can touch D. Some people love Maya [Moore] and the way she plays. I didn’t see Cheryl Miller play live but when I watch her on tape, holy cow, she was doing this stuff 30 years ago. If you are considering most decorated, Stewart has the ability to do that. But even if she wins four titles, I don’t think everyone will say it’s an automatic for greatest player ever. I don’t think just because she has four makes her automatically the best player.”
Said Sue Bird, former UConn star and three-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist who was part of a handful of UConn alums who came to Tampa to watch the title game: “To go four straight would be pretty special. So I think automatically that kind of puts you at the top. She’ll have something over the other players and that’s something you can’t argue. The best way to judge a player is by titles and the ability to carry a team and take them to the finish line. She’s done it with three completely different teams, having to be the touted freshman, then more of a leader and a go-to scorer. We’ll see what happens senior year with her role.”
Bird couldn’t resist one last thought, though.
“I will say if the game is on the line and I had a last second shot, that ball is in Diana Taurasi’s hands every time.”
This is why the best-ever tag is subjective. Stewart started getting a lot of questions about her legacy this year and now with a third title, she knows a flood more are coming.
“When people ask me about my legacy at UConn it’s hard to answer because I am still here and still have another year here,” Stewart said. “But I’d like to be named with them [Miller, Taurasi, Parker] because that would mean I’ve had a great career. I want to become the best player I can be and where that ranks me in women’s college basketball is for others to decide.”
On Tuesday night in Tampa, it was hard not to think of her near the top.
“My senior year, I want to go out on a great note,” Stewart said, smiling, in the UConn locker room shortly after midnight. “Three in a row is hard to get, but I want four.”