UConn freshman Breanna Stewart battles inside, outside to key win

NEW ORLEANS — It was not the kind of offensive night Notre Dame expected.

The Irish made only 29.7 percent of their shots from the field in the second semifinal game at the NCAA Women’s Final Four on Sunday night in the New Orleans Arena.

UConn freshman Breanna Stewart could relate. When the Huskies lost to Notre Dame 96-87 in three overtimes in a Big East battle March 4, the 6-foot-4 freshman was a nonfactor. She was just 1-of-7 from the field and scored five points.

What a difference a month has made.

Stewart continued to establish herself as one of the college game’s budding young stars by scoring a game-high 29 points to help UConn advance to the Tuesday’s title game with a 83-65 semifinal victory over Notre Dame.

“You don’t expect a freshman to rise to the occasion like that,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I thought it was a phenomenal performance by her.”

The win puts the Huskies (34-4) in the NCAA title game for the first time since they won it in 2010. It snapped a string of four straight losses to Notre Dame and losses to the Irish in the past two NCAA semifinals.

It also marked the second straight NCAA game in which Stewart cracked the 20-point barrier. She scored 21 in UConn’s regional final win over Kentucky and was voted MVP of the Bridgeport Regional. She came into the game averaging four points better in the postseason than her 13.1 season average.

Stewart’s leap into prominence may have started with another game against the Irish. Though Notre Dame beat UConn 61-59 in the final of the Big East tournament, Stewart scored 16 in that one.

In a soft-spoken manner that was not nearly as flamboyant as her game, Stewart noted her burgeoning self-confidence.

“I think this postseason I’ve really gained a lot more confidence, and today was a game I was really looking forward to playing,” Stewart said. “And I think all of us were.”

UConn guard Kelly Faris said Stewart’s performance was anything but a surprise.

“You guys are just starting to get a glimpse of what we already knew she had,” Faris said. “This is what we saw from the beginning of the year. Everybody goes through their little lapses and issues. This is what we wanted her to get back to. This is how she plays basketball.”

There was no question that Stewart made plays with confidence Sunday night.

While Notre Dame (35-2) struggled in the first half, shooting 23.7 percent, Stewart provided plus plays on offense for the Huskies, scoring 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including two 3-pointers.

One of those 3-pointers came with 41 seconds remaining in the half and helped UConn stretch its halftime lead to 39-29.

Teams typically make halftime adjustments, and no doubt Notre Dame tried. But the Irish had no answer for Stewart, who scored 17 second-half points.

If Stewart’s game had been anchored inside, it might have been easier for the Irish to defend. Stewart mixed a array of shots from inside and outside.

By the time UConn coach Geno Auriemma took Stewart out of the game with 1:21 remaining, she was 10-of-16 from the field, including 4-of-5 on 3-pointers. She also made all five of her free throws, had five rebounds and blocked four shots.

Though UConn held a comfortable lead for most of the second half, Notre Dame did make one decisive run. Ariel Braker connected on a basket for the Irish with 6:26 left, cutting the Huskies’ lead to 61-55.

But in the sequence that followed, Stewart made a jumper off a pass from Faris at 5:31 and two free throws at the 4:08 mark. Junior teammate Bria Hartley also had a fast-break layup as Connecticut started putting the game away.

Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (16), Hartley (15) and Faris (10) were the other double-figure scorers for Connecticut.

But the spotlight shined brightest on Stewart.

“She’s a big-time player,” Hartley said. “She has had that ‘it’ factor, and she’s that player who can do big things for you in big moments.”