Hailing from Syracuse, New York, the 6’4” Breanna Stewart is entering her sophomore season as one of the elite competitors in NCAA women’s basketball. After a freshman season which saw her lead the Connecticut Huskies to their eighth NCAA title in 2013, there is already talk of how many more championships she can obtain with the Huskies.
Following in the proud legacy of other Huskies legends such as Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, Tina Charles and Maya Moore, her performance is already making WNBA scouts salivate at the thought of selecting her in the 2016 Player Draft. Of note, Moore was at the NCAA title game to see Stewart and her UConn team in action.
Having selected UConn over Duke, Penn State and Syracuse, Stewart enters her sophomore season expected to extend the Huskies legacy as the premier women’s basketball program in the NCAA. Recognized by six different organizations (including Gatorade, USA Today, Parade Magazine and McDonald’s) as the National High School Player of the Year in 2012, she was only the second high schooler to compete for Team USA in the Pan Am Games during 2011.
When she was recruited by Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma, he believed that she had the potential to be the greatest NCAA women’s basketball player ever. Hardcourt aficionados began to sing his praises when she established a program record for most points scored in the first 10 games of her Huskies career (169 points). She would finish the season with 497 points (fourth best by a freshman) and 74 blocks (third best by a freshman) as her efforts landed her a spot on the Big East All-Freshman Team.
Unfortunately, a mid-season slump began to cast a shadow of doubt. Being nicknamed Bambi by the coaching staff (due to losing her balance, bad timing and could not run a straight line) as she struggled to reach her potential, her season seemed to be going into a downward spiral. Some thought that her carefree personality had emerged to serve as a weakness.
With a commitment to improving her skills, many early-morning training sessions entailed a return to fundamentals. Emphasis on elements such as shooting and post moves saw the hard work paid off as she contributed to the Huskies beating Louisville by a 33 point margin (the largest ever) in the Final Four. Stewart would log 23 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
At the 2013 NCAA women’s Final Four, she was named the Most Outstanding Performer, making her only the fourth freshman to earn the honor. This was complemented by a nod as the NCAA Tournament Bridgeport Regionals MOP, making her the third Huskies player (along with Taurasi and Moore) to win both in the same year. During five NCAA tournament games, she averaged 20.8 points, 6.2 rebounds along with a team high .563 shooting percentage.
As expectations increase and pressure accompanies it, the thought of another spell of self-doubt may linger. Reputed as happy-go-lucky and innocent, it needs to be remembered that she is just one player on the team. With Auriemma looking to become the first NCAA women’s basketball coach to win nine championships, Stewart cannot be pressured to the point where the goal of a ninth title surpasses her own development. Having to live up to the legacy of past UConn players is simply too much to bear for any player, regardless of talent.
With programs like Duke and Louisville featuring strong squads once again, any championship shall truly be hard-earned. High expectations tend to result in disappointment and unrealistic goals. The players that succeed are those that have fun and Stewart needs to be in an environment conducive to that.
While mental toughness is the difference between winners and losers, she has too much talent to squander it away. All she needs is the time to develop her game and be comfortable enough to take the next step in her career and serve as the program’s cornerstone.