INDIANAPOLIS — Breanna Stewart’s words carry a lot of weight within the top-ranked Connecticut women’s basketball program.
On Saturday, the decorated senior became the only woman’s player to win a third Associated Press Player of the Year award. If Connecticut does what almost everyone expects this week and wins its fourth straight national title, Stewart has a shot at an unprecedented fourth Final Four Most Outstanding Performer.
Yet, near the end of Saturday’s practice session open to spectators at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Stewart’s pleas to anyone within earshot were being intentionally ignored.
“I’m embarrassed,” said an exasperated Stewart, a 6-4 senior forward who averages 19.3 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks.
Stewart’s indignation didn’t stem from the collective cold shoulder by those within the Huskies program. It was because of what she and the rest of the crowd witnessed in a video streamed on the 37-by-30-foot scoreboard above center court.
Despite Stewart’s protests, footage rolled showing the UConn team taking a private square-dancing lesson earlier in March inside its on-campus practice facility. There was Stewart, her teammates and some of their coaches decked in flannel and denim, locked arm-in-arm and moving in harmony.
Perhaps the video was meant to be self-deprecating, but it also showed just how much in lockstep this team has been as it takes a 36-0 record and 73-game winning streak into Sunday’s 6 p.m. semifinal against No. 6 Oregon State (32-4) on ESPN. Even on the dance floor, the Huskies are in sync.
“I’ll be honest, if I were to watch a basketball game, I’ve told people I would rather watch UConn than anybody, men or women,” said Beavers coach Scott Rueck, who has Oregon State making its first Final Four appearance. “The way that they transition; the way they share the basketball; the way they defend. I think they set a high bar in every way.”
Oregon State set a school record for wins behind strong shooting by guards Jamie Weisner (17.5 points) and Sydney Wiese (12.8 points). Senior 6-6 center Ruth Hamblin is right with Stewart in being an efficient shot blocker, averaging 3.4 per game to go with 11.8 points and 10 rebounds.
“The interesting thing would be how they attack Stewy and how we attack Ruth,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who was named Saturday as the AP Coach of the Year for the eighth time. “I’m sure we’ll both have different ideas of how to do it, but we’ll see that [Sunday].”
The challenge for the Beavers is one every team that has played the Huskies has to face: how to defend a team in which all five players can score at an efficient rate. UConn is first in the NCAA in points scored (88.4), points allowed (48.2), scoring margin (40.2), field goal percentage (52.9) and assists (21.7).
“There’s just no weakness,” Rueck said. “They’re so efficient.”
It’s why the Huskies likely will be doing more dancing Sunday night and advance on Tuesday to their 11th national title game, in which they’re a perfect 10-0. They know they have to get there, first.
“When [Sunday] happens, we’re focused solely on the game,” Stewart said. “We’re going through our same game-day routine because that’s how we mentally lock in.”