Geno Auriemma was right. It took a few months for everything to fall into place for freshman Breanna Stewart, but she really could be "as good as any recruit we've ever had at UConn." Never was that more obvious than Sunday night when she put the Huskies on her back on the way to a 83-65 win over Notre Dame.
By the time it was over, Stewart had 29 points, five rebounds and four blocks. To put that in perspective, not only was it a career high, the freshman from Syracuse outscored the Fighting Irish's two All-Americans, Kayla McBride (16 points) and Skylar Diggins (10 points).
So how did Stewart, whose season got off to searing start before a rough patch in the middle of the schedule left her struggling with her confidence, regain the form that made her the nation's best high school player a year ago?
"Coaching," Auriemma said laughing after the game.
Then he got serious. "You know, every player, especially young players, deal with things differently, the coach told ESPN's Rebecca Lobo, who knows something about playing for Auriemma.
"Stewie probably puts as much pressure on herself as any kid I've ever coached," he continued. "And when she wasn't playing well, she really took it hard, and couldn't let go of it. And then, I think when the (regular) season ended, it just kind of let the air out of the balloon and she said 'Now I just want to play basketball.' My gosh, she was amazing tonight."
The victory puts UConn back in the finals where they'll face Louisville for a chance at national title No. 8, but to get to that point that had to beat a Notre Dame team that had owned them recently. The Irish won all three matchups this season, and seven of the last eight. More than that, they were riding a 30-game winning streak and unlike most teams, weren't in awe of what the Huskies represented. Which meant that Auriemma's bunch had to outplay the Irish, which is exactly what happened.
"Once you get (go the Final Four), you're only going to beat great teams," Auriemma said. "And the reason Notre Dame's beaten us seven out of the last eight times is because they're really, really good.
"They're a great team -- because I know how good we are -- and for them to do what they did to us the last seven times, that says a lot about them," he continued. "But for one night -- and that's what's great about the NCAA Tournament -- for just this night, we just needed to be better than them. And we were."
It's an old sports cliche but it's certainly fitting here: It's not where you start, it's where you finish. And for the Huskies and Stewart, that certainly holds true. Next up: Louisville.
Photo Credit: AP