By DOUG FEINBERG
AP Basketball Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Breanna Stewart made it very clear from the start that her ultimate goal is to win four national championships at UConn.
That’s more than just being bold, confident or ambitious — it’s downright unheard of, even at Connecticut.
Or maybe it isn’t so far-fetched.
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The junior star is already more halfway to her goal and she’s two victories away from a third title this year.
“That’s what I came here for,” said Stewart, who exudes confidence on the court to go along with a playful demeanor off it.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma is the first to say that his latest Huskies great doesn’t have the same brashness or swagger of former star Diana Taurasi, but does have the same “it” factor.
“If there was one answer to that question we’d be able to help every kid be like that,” Auriemma said of the “it” factor. “She just has a unique ability to do big things in big moments. I’ve been lucky that I had a bunch of those guys.
“I can’t figure out why they are like that. Something’s going on inside that other people don’t have. She has it. She doesn’t really have the edge that Dee had. Nobody has that. Some of the great ones have had it. The way the carried themselves. She’s much more laid back, easy going. But that edge comes out at NCAA Tournament time.”
Stewart has always saved her best play for the brightest stage.
She’s 16-0 in the NCAA Tournament, never facing defeat in the game’s biggest arena. She’s well on her way to becoming the most decorated player in college basketball history. Stewart is already in a class by herself, becoming the first player to earn most outstanding player honors of the Final Four in her first two seasons. Only four other players have won that award twice in their college careers as Stewart joined Cheryl Miller, Chamique Holdsclaw, Taurasi and Candace Parker. None of them did it as freshmen and sophomores.
While Stewart’s numbers are down a little bit this season averaging 17.6 points — about a basket down from last year — and 7.6 rebounds, it’s more to the talent surrounding her and the fact that the most of the Huskies games are decided by the half.
“People are under the impression that because Stewie doesn’t get 30 every night that she can’t,” Auriemma said. “If Stewie wanted to … she could do it every night. If we didn’t have the balanced team that we have, she’d be doing it every night. They’d be talking about her as the best player by far in America. Because she’s content to just play, and not worry about the numbers part of it, people forget how good she really is.”
Stewart’s success hasn’t just come on the college stage. The 22-year-old has already won six gold medals for USA Basketball. She was the only collegiate player on the national team this past fall that a won the world championship in Turkey. She put that gold medal alongside the one’s she already won leading the U16, U17, U18, U19 teams to titles.
There isn’t much Stewart can’t do on the basketball court. She’ll swoop through the air to grab a rebound, leap to block a shot and can score from just about anywhere on the floor in virtually every way possible.
“I think she’s amazing,” said Dayton coach Jim Jabir, whose team gave the Huskies their only test of the NCAA Tournament by leading at the half of the regional final. “She’s a kid that combines great length and size with agility and skill. She’s the best player in country. I really believe that. She may end up being the best player at UConn.”
All that, and many say she’s still just scratching the surface of her talent. WNBA teams are already trying to figure out ways to draft her next year.
“Little by little she adds something to her game all the time,” Auriemma said. “Every day in practice I see something I didn’t see before. It’s a lot of fun coaching her because she wants to learn and wants to get better.”
If she can guide the Huskies to a third straight championship this season and win a third consecutive outstanding player award she’d join Kareem Abdul Jabbar as the only players in the history of the sport to accomplish that feat. She’d also get Auriemma a 10th national championship tying him with Alcindor’s vaunted coach at UCLA John Wooden.
And of course, she’d be just one title short of going for 4-for-4.
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