NEW ORLEANS — Breanna Stewart is still learning the game, still trying to figure it out.
After all, she’s just a freshman.
That means Stewart’s performance during Connecticut’s 93-60 win Tuesday night against Louisville in the NCAA women’s championship game may have introduced the sport’s next great star to a national audience.
Not bad for Stewart, who on this grand stage at the New Orleans Arena added a new twist to the Huskies’ championship lineage. Before halftime, she eclipsed the NCAA record for points by a freshman in the title game, using a mixture of quick-release 3-pointers from the top of the key and even easier shots in the paint thanks to her 6-foot-4 frame.
Louisville’s task never got any easier. Stewart never missed from behind the arc, and she made 9 of 15 shots from the field.
Later, as Stewart added her final shot to a 23-point, nine-rebound performance with a back-door cut and layup, she was rewarded with a long hug from coach Geno Auriemma before taking her place on the bench, the end of her remarkable run in the NCAA tournament.
“I’m glad she’s on our side. I wouldn’t want to be playing against her,” said teammate Kelly Faris, who scored 16 points. “I don’t think people understand how much we needed her to get to this point. If we didn’t have her, we wouldn’t be here.”
Later, Auriemma joked that, while he was happy Faris ended her career with a title, as for Stewart, he said: “Eh.”
Perhaps Stewart’s toughest decision of the night?
“As the clock was winding and we knew we were going to win the national championship, I was trying to figure out who was going to be the first person I was going to hug,” Stewart said smiling.
Now the forward has a national title and Most Outstanding Player award for the tournament — she’s just the fourth freshman to earn the honor — to add to what should be a growing list of future accolades.
With the NCAA careers of Baylor’s Brittney Griner and Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins over, Stewart may be next in line to carry the torch for women’s college basketball, adding her name to a long list of UConn greats to do the same, from Sue Bird to Diana Taurasi.
Stewart scored 18 points in the first half, allowing UConn to take control en route to its eighth national championship. With 11:26 left, Stewart caught a pass at the top of the key, quickly releasing it over Louisville’s Monique Reid, who’s listed at 3 inches shorter. Stewart was fouled but missed the accompanying free throw, one of the few shots she was errant on before halftime.
After Louisville’s Bria Smith missed a 3-pointer, Stewart added a jump shot, giving UConn a 22-14 lead. After another Louisville miss, Stewart ended another UConn possession with a layup, part of the Huskies’ 15-0 run.
Louisville’s chances of an upset was over. Meanwhile, Stewart’s future is just beginning.
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