STORRS, Conn. — Breanna Stewart’s father recalls a much different time in his daughter’s life. A time long before Saturday’s senior day ceremony ahead of No. 1 UConn’s 80–40 win over Tulane, when he hadn’t yet walked hand-in-hand with Breanna and his wife, Heather, across the court at Gampel Pavilion in celebration of perhaps the best career in women’s college basketball history. A time when Breanna wasn’t vying for an unprecedented fourth straight NCAA title. When she wasn’t the anticipated No. 1 pick in April’s WNBA draft or the only collegian to attend USA Basketball’s senior national team training camp.
Brian Stewart aptly remembers a time when his daughter—always mature and responsible beyond her years—was a young girl. She was supremely talented with a basketball in her hands, but at times uncertain of herself and her abilities.
“The first year she ever played USA basketball, she was 14,” Brian recalled. “We took her to the airport and we were all crying and holding each other at the gate. She was young and it was tough for all of us to be apart.”
But with glimmers of the poise that has helped her become a three-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player, the Syracuse, N.Y. native adapted to being away from home and thrust into the spotlight. As the youngest player on the USA Basketball U16 squad, she earned a starting position and tied for the team lead in blocks, en route to helping the USA win a gold medal in Mexico City at the first FIBA Americas U16 Championship for women in 2009.
“Gradually, it got easier,” Brian said of his daughter’s adjustment to being away from home. “The next year we got a parking spot and went in with her to say goodbye, and then after that, we were calling a cab for her and she was going by herself. We got used to the fact that she was O.K. navigating through things without us.”
Stewart, who finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds on Saturday, continued to develop as she climbed the ranks of USA Basketball. She earned her first of two honors as the organization’s female athlete of the year in 2011 and four of her now-five gold medals before even stepping on the court at UConn. Thus, when her career began with Geno Auriemma’s Huskies in 2012, Stewart’s readiness for the Division I level was apparent.
The 6'4" forward got off to a hot start in college, scoring more points through her first 10 games than any other UConn freshman in program history with 169. But, almost as quickly as she got started, her production faltered.
“Her freshman year, the whole month of November and December, she was way better than anyone else we played against and she was as good as any freshman we have ever had, including Maya [Moore],” said Auriemma, UConn’s coach since 1985. “So I got a sense of what it could be.”
But then came the adversity, as Stewart found herself out of a starting role from December until the Big East tournament in March. After averaging 16.9 points per game through the first 10 games, Stewart averaged just 9.6 points over her next 18. In UConn's three regular-season losses during the 2012–13 campaign, she was 6 of 26 from the field with nine turnovers and one assist.
“I knew it wouldn’t last,” Auriemma said of Stewart’s early success. “I knew it wouldn’t be a type of situation where it’s four years without any hiccups.”
Stewart recalls a Feb. 18 loss to Baylor as the lowest point of her freshman season, in which she went scoreless in just seven minutes of action.
“I remember thinking after the game that I didn’t help my teammates win, I didn’t help my teammates do anything,” said Stewart. “That really stuck with me because playing at UConn, I consider my teammates my family, and I wanted to make sure they could count on me.”
For the first time since her early USA Basketball days, Stewart’s parents saw doubt in the eyes of their then-18-year-old daughter.
“I think she was at a crossroads,” Brian recalled. “She just seemed to have uncertainties about herself. Whether they were real or not, we just had to help her through.”
Said Stewart of her low point: “It just seemed like nothing was going my way and nothing was working ... I remember my dad bought me an Xbox 360 because he just wanted to see me have fun at something, because I wasn’t having fun at that point.”
The Xbox, along with frequent calls to her parents and extra time spent practicing with associate head coach Chris Dailey, brought the enjoyment of the game back to Stewart’s life and eventually helped her out of her freshman year rut.
“If Breanna had called us and said ‘Get me out of here,’ we would have been out there and have gotten her out of there,” Brian said. “But we just knew she had to figure this thing out on her own and I think she did.”
Stewart did more than just figure it out. She excelled in critical postseason moments for the Huskies, serving as the catalyst for much of their success down the stretch. In three games in the Big East tournament, Stewart matched Diana Taurasi’s freshman point total with 51. Despite her team’s heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame in the conference tournament final, Stewart had regained the confidence that had been lacking since the season’s early goings.
“The Big East tournament was huge for me,” she said. “I came out and was playing the way I knew I could. I rode that momentum throughout the entire postseason.”
Though she missed UConn’s first NCAA tournament game against Idaho because of an injured calf, she dominated the next five. Stewart averaged 20.8 points and 6.2 rebounds while going 9 for 15 from three and led the Huskies to their eighth national title. She also became just the fourth freshman in NCAA history to be named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Over the next two seasons, she added a flurry of feathers to her cap, winning two more national titles and NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player awards, while also twice being named the AP national player of the year, a first team All-America selection and the American Athletic Conference player of the year, among countless other honors.
Stewart is humbled by her freshman year struggles, for which she credits much of her success since.
“It definitely put a chip on my shoulder,” Stewart said. “Even now, just remembering that season and those losses and not wanting to feel that again motivates me.”
With her final stretch on the horizon, Stewart is in the midst of turning in her finest season thus far for the 28–0 Huskies. She’s averaging 19.3 points, 8.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.4 blocks per game.
Off the court, she is a far cry from the 14-year-old who did not want to part with her parents, as well as the dispirited 18-year-old who had experienced her first taste of failure on the basketball court. Now 21, Stewart is as self-assured and composed as she’s ever been.
“Breanna’s grown up a lot,” Brian said. “She’s still just 21 and she’s still a kid, but she has a certain level of confidence about her now, and she’s brought it to a different level over her four years at UConn.”
Her development was perhaps never more evident than after Saturday’s senior day victory when given the chance to address UConn’s fans.
Without a hint of doubt, Stewart took the microphone in front of the capacity crowd at Gampel Pavilion, thanked them for their support and left them with four words.
“We’re not done yet.”