It has not been a great year for basketball fans in the New York area. Unless, of course, you are willing to drive a few hours north to Storrs, Connecticut, where it is always a great year for basketball.
This season’s University of Connecticut women’s team might be its best ever, which is saying a lot, considering that Geno Auriemma’s program has won 10 NCAA championships and produced some of the biggest stars in the game, including Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore.
This season, fans really don’t come to Gampel Pavilion to watch a basketball game as much as they come to witness the greatness of 6-4 center Breanna Stewart and a team that just doesn’t lose. The undefeated Huskies — who routed East Carolina, 92-51, yesterday in their AAC Tournament opener — are on the precipice of becoming the first women’s basketball team to win four consecutive NCAA championships.
And, more importantly to fans of the sport, Stewart is on the precipice of becoming a transformative player in the women’s game, someone with all the tools, talent and smarts to push the WNBA to the next level after Seattle takes her with its No. 1 pick this spring.
That, of course, is a lot to put on anyone, even a player with a 7-foot wingspan who routinely dunks in practice and often is compared to the NBA’s Kevin Durant. Yet it’s hard not to be wowed by what Stewart brings to the table. Even Durant himself is a big fan of her game.
“For a girl that tall, she can do a lot with the basketball,” Durant told reporters last month when he was in New York with the Thunder to play the Knicks. “She’s very skilled. She can shoot, she can pass, she can rebound, she can run, she can jump. So there’s something I haven’t seen — in the women’s game or otherwise — in a long time. I’m a big fan, a huge fan.”
Stewart, who grew up outside of Syracuse, has never been afraid to aim high. When she came to Connecticut four years ago, she famously declared that her goal was to finish every season with a championship. With six more NCAA Tournament victories, she and her senior teammates can become the first players, male or female, to win four NCAA basketball titles. (John Wooden’s UCLA men’s teams won seven straight titles from 1967-1973, but freshmen were ineligible at the time, so the most a player could win was three.)
Stewart — or Stewie, as the Huskies faithful call her — said she’s feeling more excitement than she is pressure as her team enters the postseason.
“I know this is huge. This is what I came here to do,” she said after Connecticut closed out its pretournament season with a 75-59 win over South Florida. “This is the last opportunity to go after what we want, and that’s a national championship.”
Auriemma doesn’t like to compare players from different eras, but it’s clear that he believes that Stewart has an ability to impact the game like no one before her.
Before the season, he talked about her needing to make “wow” plays, do the kind of things that fans are not used to seeing. He talked to her about Michael Jordan and how every day he did things that made others shake their heads, made them wonder if they really had seen what they had just seen. And he told her she had the potential to do the same.
She has had a lot of those moments this season, perhaps most notably when she attempted a dunk in Dallas during a blowout of Southern Methodist University. Stewart came flying to the rim and attempted a two-handed jam off Moriah Jefferson’s miss. The dunk just missed, but the rim rattled and fans’ jaws dropped.
“Dunking is not extremely important,” Stewart said. “But if I can do it in a game, it would be cool because I think it would do a lot for women’s basketball. It would also be a cool experience for me, but it’s not like I am dying to do it.”
It’s this kind of attitude that the WNBA sorely needs as it enters its 20th season. The league need an athlete who can capture the imagination of the public and help push the sport out of the niche it currently occupies into a bigger spotlight.
The WNBA has been looking for that player for a while. The league has had a number of great players, of course. Taurasi, Moore, Tamika Catchings, Lauren Jackson, Brittney Griner and Elena Delle Donne come to mind. For various reasons, no one except for maybe Griner, who is more famous for being involved in a domestic dispute, has been able to transcend her sport.
Stewart could be the one. But for now, she just wants to concentrate on the task at hand.
Said Stewart: “The future will come. For now, I just want this to go as slowly as possible. I want to enjoy every second of it.”
How Breanna Stewart ranks among Connecticut’s all-time best:
Breanna Stewart 2,4611,0173
Tina Charles2,346 1,3672
Rebecca Lobo 2,133 1,2681
Diana Taurasi 2,1566283