Storm debut among memorable milestones for Breanna Stewart

Labelled “the LeBron James of women’s basketball” by Kelsey Plum, an All-American with the Washington Huskies, the Seattle Storm are hoping that Breanna Stewart can emerge as a franchise player and restore the championship hopes for a loyal fan base. In addition to her scoring prowess, Stewart is also a solid playmaker, as evidenced by her 300 career blocks and 300 career assists, the only NCAA player to do so. As a side note, she was also the only competitor to be recognized as the Final Four most outstanding player four times.
As Stewart made her preseason debut with the Storm, gracing the courts of the WNBA for the first-time ever, there was a tinge of irony. Former Huskies teammate Moriah Jefferson, the second pick overall in this year’s WNBA Draft was opposing Stewart, as a member of the Phoenix Mercury.

The WNBA Draft was a watershed moment for the league and the Huskies. With the draft launching the celebration of the WNBA’s 20th season, it was only fitting that the Draft was held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. Holding the first overall pick for the second consecutive year (the Storm selected Jewell Loyd in 2015), the Storm did not surprise, selecting Stewart. Of note, Stewart became the fifth UConn alum taken first overall in WNBA Draft history. The others in this remarkable class include Maya Moore (2011), Tina Charles (2010), Diana Taurasi (2004) and Sue Bird (2002).

Following Stewart, San Antonio grabbed Jefferson Moriah Jefferson while Morgan Tuck went third overall to the Connecticut Sun, allowing her to stay in close proximity to her Huskies glories. It marked the first time in WNBA draft history (and in professional sports) that three players from the same school represented the top three picks. As a side note, the 2002 WNBA Draft saw Huskies players selected first, second, fourth and sixth overall.

This titanic trio also hold the rare distinction of having won the Final Four in every season of their NCAA careers, another historic first. It was a fitting end to their glorious collegiate careers, propelling the Huskies into one of the greatest dynasties in American sporting history. Except for the likes of Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton with the UCLA Bruins, Stewart may be the most accomplished basketball player in the history of NCAA basketball, capturing three straight Player of the Year Awards, an unprecedented achievement.
In her WNBA debut, Stewart managed 29 minutes of playing time, logging 11 points and a solid eight rebounds, although Phoenix that would prevail. With 3,271 fans at Key Arena witnessing her debut, it was Stewart’s first loss on a basketball court since November 28, 2014.

While the Storm had a solid first half, a 36-28 lead evaporated as the Mercury enjoyed an 11-0 run. Loyd would tie the score at 39-39 at halftime. Considering that Sue Bird was inactive in the second half, the Mercury outscored the Storm in both quarters (20-14 in the third, 22-20 in the fourth), grabbing the W. Compounding matters was a lack of on-court chemistry between Loyd and Stewart, a key challenge for head coach Jenny Boucek to overcome. The leap to the professional ranks became a sobering reality, as winning, something so easily attained at the University of Connecticut could not be taken for granted in the WNBA.

One of the benefits of joining the Storm is the fact that Stewart is joined by another Huskies legend. Entering her 15th WNBA season, Sue Bird led the Storm to WNBA titles in 2004 and 2010, complemented by 10 straight postseason berths. While both represent Huskies pride with the Storm, the two will also get the opportunity to be teammates twice before the WNBA season expires.

In addition to being part of the Seattle Storm’s roster, both were named to the US national team that shall compete at the 2016 Rio Summer Games. Having already won three gold medals in Summer Games play, Bird will be looking for a fourth, as this will likely be the final Games of her storied career.

While Rio represents the first Summer Games for Stewart, she will be joined by a couple of other celebrated first-timers, including Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner. At the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Stewart donned the US jersey in a silver medal effort, suffering an upset to fellow Husky Kia Nurse and the host Canadian team in an emotional gold medal match.

Gold is a strong possibility to be the color of choice in the aftermath of Rio for Stewart et al. With Huskies coach Geno Auriemma serving as the US head coach (he was also the bench boss at London 2012), a second championship in 2016 for Auriemma and Stewart would only add to the legendary legacies that the two have forged in four fantastic years with the Huskies.

Meanwhile, Stewart’s focus shall be on bringing the Storm back into contention. Despite opening her WNBA career with a loss, Stewart has the talent and the tenacity to ensure that the wins will outnumber the losses. A rematch with the Mercury on Mother’s Day shall prove to be a key test for Stewart.

Another element of intrigue in the preseason shall include a contest the followigtn week against the Los Angeles Sparks. Of note, the Sparks selected Syracuse University star Brianna Butler in the Draft. Not only did Stewart grow up in North Syracuse, but her fourth straight Final Four title came against Syracuse. Undoubtedly, emotions will run high for both.

Breanna Stewart lands on Sports Illustrated cover as she looks to win fourth Final Four tourney

For the second time in less than six weeks, a female athlete graces the cover of Sports Illustrated, signs of positive growth. Following in the path of Ronda Rousey, who graced the cover of the SI Swimsuit Edition in mid-February, Connecticut basketball icon Breanna Stewart lands on the cover (dated March 22, 2016). As a side note, it represents her second appearance on a cover, as she was on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated on March 14, 2014.

Featuring several collectible covers as part of SI’s March Madness preview, Stewart is the only female player to gain the cover treatment. The other athletes include senior forward Brice Johnson from the Tar Heels, Buddy Hield on the Oklahoma cover and Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff. Stewart is part of Sports Illustrated’s preview coverage of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, which sees the Huskies seeded number 1 in the tournament (for the tenth consecutive year) along with a top ranking in the AP Polls. It was a fitting honor for Stewart to be recognized with such a sporting milestone as she looks to end her NCAA career on a historic note.

StewartSICover

Destined to be the first pick overall in the 2016 WNBA Draft, she is not the only Huskies superstar that is poised to become a first-round pick. Along with Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, each has a date with destiny as they aim to become the first-ever players to capture an unprecedented four NCAA Final Four championships in a career. In their combined careers wtih Connecticut, they have amassed an astonishing 145-5 record, which includes an undefeated mark of 18-0 in the NCAA tournament.

Hailing from North Syracuse, New York, Stewart’s 2014 appearance on the cover marked the eighth time that Huskies nationally renowned women’s basketball program gained such prestige. With astounding career marks including 2,554 points (top ten all-time in Huskies lore) and 1,113 rebounds, she has also dished out 404 assists while terrorizing opposing offenses with 395 blocked shots. Complementing her three Final Four titles is the fact that she was named the Most Outstanding Player all three times.
The only male player to reach such heights was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, accomplishing the feat for UCLA.

Favored to repeat once again as the winner of the Associated Press Player of the Year, the Naismith Trophy, the Wade Trophy Winner, John R. Wooden Award and USBWA Player of the Year honor, Stewart’s legacy in the game is secure. While a fourth championship would definitely earn another deserved cover spot, one could also argue that she would establish herself as an early favorite for the Sportsperson of the Year Award.

Canada upsets US to capture historic gold medal in women’s basketball at Pan Am Games

With a gold medal on Monday night, the Canadian women’s basketball team contributed two significant milestones. Of note, it continued host country Canada’s streak of at least one gold medal in every day of play. Perhaps more importantly, it marked the first time ever that Canada’s women claimed a gold medal in Pan Am Games basketball.

After one quarter of play, the Americans enjoyed a 23-13 lead. Benefitting from the presence of University of Connecticut superstars Breanna Stewart (the favorite to go first overall in the 2016 WNBA Draft) and Moriah Jefferson, they could not have foreseen the Canadian contingent assembling 10 unanswered points, changing the tempo of the game.

Defeating the United States by an 81-73 count, Kia Nurse played the game of her career, logging 33 points, while grabbing five rebounds and dishing out three assists. During the second period, Nurse would steal the ball and dish an assist, giving Canada their first lead of the game, 31-30. With a 36-36 draw at halftime, Nurse propelled the Canadians to unprecedented heights in the second half.

At one point, the United States faced a 17-point deficit as the sold-out crowd at Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre (inside Toronto’s iconic Maple Leaf Gardens) was jubilant with pride. Despite the home court advantage, Canada saw their lead diminish to 11 points as the fourth period began.

Additional heroics were supplied by Natalie Achonwa, who returned to the Canadian roster after suffering a torn ACL last year. Supplying 13 points, her return helped Canada accomplish five wins in five nights. Other opponents that Canada vanquished included the likes of Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela. Providing a solid performance on dfense, Tamara Tatham also managed 10 points.

Both Achonwa and Nurse would help put the game out of reach against the US. Hanging on to a five-point lead with only 18 seconds remaining, Achonwa converted on a free throw, while Nurse followed with two of her own, extending said lead to eight points. When Nurse was at the free throw line, excited fans were chanting “M-V-P”. With under four minutes left, Nurse had to be carried off the court due to a collision. The fans gave her a standing ovation, energizing her to return to the court.

Of note, Nurse comes from a very athletic family. Her brother Darnell was a first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, while her cousin Sarah plays hockey with the Wisconsin Badgers program. Sarah has also experienced the jubilation of donning the Maple Leaf, playing for the U18 Canadian women’s hockey team. Their uncle Donovan McNabb was a former quarterback in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Redskins.

Qualification for the 2016 Rio Summer Games shall begin in August. The Canadians shall hope for the benefit of home court advantage as the FIBA Qualifying Tournament takes place in Edmonton.

Women’s sports has proud presence at 2014 ESPY Awards

One of the greatest forums to recognize female sports excellence, the 2014 edition of the ESPY Awards delivered again. With the red carpet filled with some of the biggest (and most beautiful) names in female sport, such as Danica Patrick and Hilary Knight, it had all the elegance and allure of the Academy Awards in an evening that celebrated some remarkable women.

Danica Patrick stuns in white at the ESPYs Red Carpet (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Danica Patrick stuns in white at the ESPYs Red Carpet (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Fan favorite Maria Sharapova may have been the most notable female athlete to gain an award, earning Best Female Tennis Player honors. Jamie Anderson, who also appears in the 2014 ESPN Body Issue took home the Female Action Sports Athlete Award. Of note, Anderson would emerge as the only female athlete to win two ESPY Awards. Beating out Maddie Bowman, Kelly Clark, Vicki Golden and Carissa Moore for the Best Female Action Sports Athlete award, she was also the winner of the Best Female US Olympic Athlete.

Maria Sharapova at the ESPYs Red Carpet (Photo credit: Getty Images)

Maria Sharapova at the ESPYs Red Carpet (Photo credit: Getty Images)

After winning the 2014 US Women’s Open at Pinehurst, her first major, Michelle Wie built on the momentum by earning earned Best Female Golfer, beating out Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park (who was also nominated for Best International Athlete) and Suzann Petersen.

An aspect of sport that does not always gain recognition, athletes with disabilities were acknowledged. In the Best Female Athlete with a Disability category, Jamie Whitmore was named the recipient. Fellow nominees included the likes of Minda Dentler, Oksana Masters, Tatyana McFadden and Laurie Stephens.

After leading the Minnesota Lynx to their second straight WNBA title, Maya Moore added to her growing collection of awards and honors by earning the ESPY for Best WNBA Player. In a field that included Elena Delle Donne, Angel McCoughtry and Candace Parker, any of the nominees would have been a worthy selection.

Of note, Moore was also nominated for the Best Female Athlete award. She would not get the opportunity to join Anderson as a two-time award winner this evening. The award would go to Ronda Rousey, who has dominated the UFC female division, having gone undefeated in her last four appearances. Mikaela Shiffrin and Breanna Stewart were among the other nominees for the honor.

Stewart would not leave the 2014 ESPY Awards empty handed. Having emerged as the greatest female college basketball player in America, she would earn the nod for Best Female Collegiate Athlete. Having led the UConn Huskies to a second consecutive national title, she follows in the proud footsteps of Huskies alumnae such as Moore, Rebecca Lobo, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi.

The field for Best Female Collegiate Athlete was nothing short of impressive. Morgan Brian, a soccer player at Virginia, Taylor Cummings, who competes in lacrosse with Maryland, Micah Hancock, who rewrote the record books at Penn State Volleyball and Hannah Rogers, a softball player from Florida were all in contention for the award.

Breanna Stewart expected to have a sensational sophomore season

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.

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Stacy Revere/Getty Images

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.