UConn freshman Breanna Stewart gets a handle on lofty expectations

NEW ORLEANS — The day Breanna Stewart scratched her signature on a National Letter of Intent, the nation’s consensus top prospect chose a locale that would have been loathed by the press.

Instead of setting up in the lobby of Cicero High School, the native of Syracuse, N.Y., climbed into her Honda CR-V and drove downtown in November 2011. On the hood of her SUV, she signed. Her father, Brian, whisked the letter inside and ran it through a fax machine.

No pomp, but it fulfilled the prompt of Connecticut assistant coach Chris Dailey to get her hands on a letter affirming a recruiting class comprised of three prospects in the nation’s top 10.

Quiet, simple and low-key. Yet the oft-told story is a reflection of the 6-foot-4 stretch forward whose pedigree might be the most burnished since the juggernaut Huskies snared Maya Moore in 2007.

“It really was the easiest thing to do,” Stewart said.

If only Stewart’s debut season in Storrs had been so effortless as her deft hook shot in the middle of the lane.

Mimicking Moore, Stewart’s polished inside-out repertoire netted a freshman scoring record, and she was poised to emerge as the face of the sport’s top program — until bruising skirmishes in December against Maryland, Penn State and Stanford shushed hype for a sinewy prodigy in a rut for two months.

At a program oddly lacking star power this season, the implication wasn’t so much whispered as screamed: The veteran of three cycles of international play for USA Basketball didn’t live up to her lofty billing.

“Obviously, when you decided to come to Connecticut, you put yourself under a microscope and spotlight automatically,” Stewart said Saturday. “No matter what, maybe it was looked at more. I don’t think I helped it, because I wasn’t playing well. For me, it was still something that I didn’t like.”

Oddly, the calendar turning to March has revived Stewart and the top-seeded Huskies (33-4), who are trying to avenge three losses this season to fellow top seed and Big East rival Notre Dame (34-1) at 8 p.m. Sunday in the Women’s Final Four at the New Orleans Arena.

In the past month, Stewart paced UConn with 17.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in the Big East Conference tournament, tying former Huskies great Diana Taurasi’s scoring record in the process.

After sitting out the first round of the NCAA tournament with a left calf strain, she has posted the same scoring average, including 21 points in an 83-53 Elite Eight rout of Kentucky on Monday.

“There’s obviously been some bumps in the road, but as of right now, I’m really happy and confident about how I’m playing,” Stewart said. “I would have liked it to be earlier in the season. That would have been nice, but there are worse times than the NCAA tournament.”

The pendulum has swung back to its earlier point in November and December, when injuries to guards Bria Hartley and Caroline Doty led coach Geno Auriemma to go with a bigger rotation and insert Stewart as a starter. She affirmed the notion by averaging 16.8 points in her first 10 games, setting a new benchmark with 27 against Hartford on Dec. 22.

“Let me guess,” Auriemma said afterward. “She broke Maya’s record.”

Indeed.

On Saturday, the typically sarcastic and snarky Auriemma hinted at cynicism that Stewart arrived fully developed to the seven-time national champions.

“For Brianna, everything she did that was really good, she was the greatest player to ever come to Connecticut,” he said. “Then everything she did that was bad, well, she’s not as good as everyone said she was.”

If anything, it spoke to a void since Moore left in 2011, a lineage that starts with Rebecca Lobo and runs through Jennifer Rizzotti, Kara Wolters, Nykesha Sales, Sue Bird, Taurasi and Tina Charles. Granted, Auriemma emphasized the program doesn’t recruit with luster in mind.

“We don’t build our program around one person, no matter who it is,” he said. “It was always in the context of, ‘We’ll let them decide, each player, how big their role is going to be.’ And because of how big their personalities were, they just became superstars.”

Pardon Auriemma, but Stewart’s résumé spoke to bona fides and a game that led analysts to compare it to NBA great George Gervin.

At Cicero, she notched 2,367 points to go with 1,389 rebounds, including a triple-double in the state final her senior year to cap an 84-13 span over four seasons.

Internationally, she represented the USA on its Under-18, Under-17 and Under-16 teams in the FIBA World and Americas championship, traveling to compete in Chile and Puerto Rico. In 2011, she was the lone high school player on the Pan-American Games roster.

Scouting reports lauded her size, 71-inch wing span, versatility and experience. So when her parents dropped her off in Storrs this past August, the transition, at least psychologically, should have been of relative ease.

“You can try, but there’s a difference between psychologically trying to prepare yourself and actually doing it,” Stewart said. “Obviously coming from high school to college, there’s going to be some adjustment. It’s just trying to make the best transition you can.”

But over the last 18 regular-season games ahead of the Big East tournament, she averaged a mere 9.8 points, shot less than 50 percent and bottomed out in a loss to Baylor when she played seven scoreless minutes. Meanwhile, the press corps asked often for a diagnosis.

“It was a lot of frustration because I don’t like seeing myself not play well,” Stewart said. “I don’t think anyone enjoys not playing well. I was just trying as hard as I could to get myself out of whatever place I was in. It took a little bit, but I’ll definitely make the adjustments.”

A demure personality might also have been mistaken for angst or fretfulness. Quiet and reserved, Stewart is described as “goofy” by teammates, prone to pulling pranks with roommate and fellow blue-chip recruit Moriah Jackson and targeting freshman Morgan Tuck with Nerf guns or hiding fruit-drink packs in her bed. Talent aside, she has fit into the veteran-centric culture of Auriemma’s program, willingly stocking refrigerators with drinks for upperclassmen and going last in the chow line.

While the program is comprised of elite players competing for minutes, there seems to be a nurturing component around a player fondly dubbed “Stewie.”
On Friday, the team taped “teases” for ESPN, with Stewart going first. With fake smoke pouring into the background of a faux-Bourbon Street set, senior point guard Kelly Faris and senior center Stefanie Dolson clapped mockingly. Yet when the exercise wrapped, Doty stepped forward. She raised two palms for high-fives.

“That’s a way, Stewie,” Dolson said.

Auriemma, meanwhile, professed confusion more than frustration. Practically, the physical nature of Big East play created a problematic cycle: Unable to finish at the rim, she settled for jumpers. If those didn’t fall, she was hesitant to attack the rim for rebounds and putbacks.

“When you shy away from physicality, you wind up being a finesse player,” Stewart said. “It takes away from my game, just because it’s about being versatile inside and out. When you settle for those jump shots, it’s really limiting myself.”

That’s changed recently, with Stewart being more aggressive and seeking out second-chance points. Her svelte frame needs time in the weight room, but for now she can snare 50-50 balls, work on her mid-range game and try to attack slower players off the dribble.

A day later in the cramped concrete-walled confines of the team’s locker room, Dolson repeated the company line: You don’t get to play for Connecticut if you can’t endure the competition.

“She’s handled it well,” Dolson said. “She’s just done a great job of pushing through obstacles and getting to the point where she plays like she knows she’s capable. That’s playing with confidence, and I’m very proud.”