NEW ORLEANS -- The coaches nicknamed the freshman Bambi. This was back in January, when Breanna Stewart was a jumble of gangly arms, occasional brilliance and infinite possibilities, much like the fictional fawn touted to become the Great Prince of the Forest. Of course the nickname was not a compliment. The 6-foot-4 freshman forward, tagged with being the next It Girl for a program that produces them at the rate Café Du Monde churns out beignets, could not get out of her own way. She'd lose her balance in practice, the timing of her jumping in games was awful, and she couldn't run down the floor in a straight line.
Worst of all, Stewart had lost her confidence during the conference part of UConn's schedule, her body language sinking along with her point totals. Head coach Geno Auriemma proclaimed before the season that Stewart would be the best player in the history of the program, but she was battling serious self-doubt. Her greatest strength -- her carefree personality -- also became a major weakness. "Because she is kind of carefree, maybe the pressure of the moments don't impact her," UConn associate coach Chris Dailey said. "But at the same time, because she is so carefree, she didn't have the intensity to finish plays and do the things you needed to do. Young players try to make practice easy which makes the games that much harder. It's taken her awhile to grasp that and embrace that."
It finally connected for Stewart in March and because of that, UConn has won its eighth national title. Over the course of three days in New Orleans, which culminated with Connecticut's 93-60 pasting of Louisville in the title game on Tuesday night, Stewart was hotter than the fried alligator they serve at Cochon. She finished with 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting, nine rebounds, three blocks and was 3-of-3 from three-point range. Her combined 52 points against Notre Dame and Louisville made her a layup selection for the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. She is the first freshman in 26 years (and just the fourth overall) to earn that honor. "I don't think people understand how much we needed her to get to this point," said UConn senior guard Kelly Faris, who finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and made four three-pointers in the final game of a college career that includes two national titles. "If we didn't have her, we wouldn't be here. We all know that, and I hope she knows that. I mean, we have a freshman that's the MVP of the national championship game. That doesn't happen anywhere but here."
That sentiment was echoed by arguably the program's greatest player, who watched the game from the crowd. "She has so much potential and to see her max it out at the right time was really fun," said Maya Moore, the WNBA star and four-time UConn All-America. "I'm excited to see her add things to her game. She is pretty unique. She can do things on the perimeter and not look awkward. Her offensive competence was fun to watch."
Stewart said she was nervous at the start of the game, but those nerves receded shortly after the tip. The first punch, in fact, was thrown by Louisville. The Cardinals led 14-10 with 13:51 left in the first half before UConn did what they often do in big games: They went on an epic run. This one featured 19 uncontested points over five minutes, keyed by jumpers from Stewart, sophomore forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and junior guard Bria Hartley. UConn extended its lead to 39-23 when Stewart skyed in the lane to grab a rebound and scored on a putback in nearly the same motion-- reminding old-school NBA fans of George Gervin and new-school fans of Kevin Durant. It was an uber-athletic play, and particularly amusing because Dailey on Monday said Stewart had the worst timing of any player she had ever seen who could actually jump.
The halftime score was 48-29 and the only good news for Louisville fans was that Rick Pitino was willing to sign autographs at halftime. The Louisville men's basketball coach, no doubt groggy from flying into New Orleans Tuesday after winning the men's title on Monday night in Atlanta, sat two rows behind the Lousiville bench after addressing the women's team for 15 minutes earlier in the day. It was the third time this month Pitino had spoken with the squad, including motivational speeches prior to the tournament and before a monumental upset of top-seeded Baylor. But Pitino as a talisman ended at the New Orleans Arena. Connecticut's 33-point margin of victory was the most for an NCAA championship game.
The loss ended a remarkable run for Louisville (29-9), slayer of Baylor, Tennessee and Cal. But they stuck around long enough so the remarkable story of sisters Jude and Shoni Schimmel could be heard by a bigger audience. The fifth-seeded Cardinals were the lowest seed in history to play in a title game and with most of their players back, they will be a Top 5 team next season. "Without a doubt, this is going down as one of the greatest runs in women's basketball," said Louisville coach Jeff Walz. "I told our players when we walk out of this place, we're walking out with our held high and proud of what we have done."
UConn had moments of sloppiness in the second half -- Louisville cut the lead to 60-44 with 12:49 left -- before Stewart buried a three to extend the lead to 19. But the game was never in doubt, and Pitino knew it too: He spent a lot of time looking at his phone, no doubt returning congratulatory messages. After the game, UConn players chanted "Eight feels great!" on the championship podium while junior center Stefanie Dolson led the team in a collective message for Barack Obama ("President Obama, we're back!" the UConn players screamed.) Auriemma was later asked about the historical significance was of winning eight titles -- he is 8-0 in championship games -- and tying former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for the most NCAA championships. "I never beat Coach K in a game, and I never coached against Coach Wooden," said Auriemma. "So the only person I compare myself to is Pat Summitt. And to be there in that spot with her means a lot to me."
That would not have happened without Stewart finding her game and what Dailey described as the coaches and players re-dedicating themselves to being more committed and responsible to one another. "There would be no academic issues, no boyfriends, no family, no anything that would interfere with what we were trying to do," Dailey said. "We did a lot of stuff together and it helped."
Stewart's funk started to fade in March thanks to early-morning sessions with Dailey that focused on jump shooting and post moves, with a particular emphasis on form shooting. The coaching staff thought Stewart was too good a shooter to be missing easy looks, so Dailey demanded she not only make shots but make them without hitting the rim. "It was a really frustrating time," said Stewart, who opted for UConn over Duke, Penn State and Syracuse. "Obviously, I had never been in such an up and down period like this. In high school, it was maybe for one game. But when it is game after game, it gets frustrating because I want to play well. And when you are not playing well and trying to figure out why you are not playing well, and then you are getting into your own head, it is an ongoing cycle."
"Young players can sometimes get like and respected confused," Dailey said. "While everyone wants to be liked, when you are on the court you want to be respected for how hard you work and what you are willing to do for the team. I think she felt a responsibility to the older players and that's what bothered her the most. I don't think she cares what the media writes about her or what people say. I think she thought she was letting her team down."
Dolson, the den mother of the group, said she gave Stewart advice on the rhythms of the Final Four. "When we go on the court, go as hard as you can," Dolson told Stewart. "But then off the court relax and clear your mind." Class preoccupied Stewart some of the time in New Orleans. She is taking English, history, and sociology this semester and said she was looking forward to reading Life of Pi when she returned to campus.
Stewart said she didn't think too much about being called Bambi by the coaching staff. She's happy-go-lucky kid -- a little spacy and childlike. "Sometimes you hear things and let them go right through," Stewart said. "But it's kind of true. My limbs are all over the place. I feel like my arms are so long that it makes me look differently than it actually is."
"She's really, really innocent and in so many ways," Auriemma said. "She has a little kid's attitude towards everything that happens. She sees the fun and the joy in everything, and that's why I'm really thrilled for her because there were times this year where all that went away, and I was really worried about her. She got it back and she got it back just in time, and here we are."
While Louisville won the pregame speaker contest with Pitino -- UConn countered with Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy, who spoke at the team hotel before the Huskies' usual pregame meal of grilled chicken, potatoes and green beans -- UConn once again ended another season as the last program standing. There will be a celebration in Storrs on Wednesday as athletic department officials rented a London-style double-decker bus so the players and coaches could take a victory tour around campus.
Some posited that UConn had embarked on some miraculous late-season run, but it's a laughable notion. This was a 35-4 team that lost only to Baylor and conference rival Notre Dame, the latter a trio of defeats mostly due to poor late-game execution. The Huskies could easily have been a one-loss team heading into the tournament.
Alas, no one will remember the losses other than the coaches. UConn is now tied with Tennessee for the most titles in NCAA women's history. It is unlikely to be the last. Dailey summed up the program mindset inside the team's locker room on Monday. "What would winning eight mean?" she said. "It would mean I'd want more."
What's scary for every other women's basketball program is that this is only the beginning of Stewart's story. She is back for three more years.