BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma saw a switch turn on inside freshman Breanna Stewart just before the Big East tournament.
In the Huskies final six games of the regular season, last year’s national high school player of the year averaged just over seven points.
In the six she has played in the postseason, Stewart has averaged more than 17 points and five rebounds, while blocking 14 shots. Her performance earned Most Outstanding Play honors in the Bridgeport Regional and helped UConn reach its sixth straight Final Four.
“I can’t get inside her head and I can’t say for sure what it was, but I know there was a different look about her,” Auriemma said after the Huskies beat Kentucky in the regional final. “I went to West Chester State University, If I went to Yale or someplace like that, I would say her countenance has changed.”
Auriemma said he thinks other teams have been surprised by the ability of the gangly 6-foot-4 Stewart to run the floor, shoot from the outside and block shots underneath.
“When you look at her, you just don’t expect her to do the things that she does,” he said. “There’s something about Stewie that when it’s going well for her, I just have confidence that she can do anything on the basketball court, on both ends of the floor.”
Stewart acknowledges she has become a more focused player in recent days, but says the change in productivity has more to do with accountability than countenance.
“I feel like I’m a player that’s being able to be relied on by my teammates,” Stewart said. “Right now, that’s what I want to be able to do. Throughout the season, there were times where I wasn’t able to completely say that my teammates were able to rely on me and I think now I would say that they are.”
And she’s not the only freshman that has become more reliable.
Speedy point guard Moriah Jefferson has been a defensive stopper and a new offensive option for the Huskies in the NCAA tournament. The 5-7 guard had 10 points in 26 minutes against Maryland and 10 in 27 minutes against Kentucky.
“I think any time you come out and play well on a big stage like this, and are getting ready to go into an even bigger stage, it gives you confidence,” Jefferson said.
Auriemma has been pairing Jefferson more with junior point guard Bria Hartley. That gives the Huskies two guards on the court at the same time who can handle pressure, allowing Hartley to concentrate more on scoring.
“Defensively, they were great last weekend,” Auriemma said. “Offensively they were both super aggressive. It changes our team, obviously, when the two of them are like that.”
Jefferson played just 16 total minutes in the team’s three losses this season to Notre Dame. Irish coach Muffet McGraw said the Huskies could be a different team if she plays more than that in their fourth meeting on Sunday.
“She just is so quick, and she really seems to like the transition game,” McGraw said. “So she presents some problems, because she puts their game at a little higher pace.”
The Huskies’ third freshman, forward Morgan Tuck, has come back from an early season knee injury to be a steady contributor off the bench. Tuck had eight points, hitting four of her five shots against Maryland, and added six points against Kentucky.
She may be needed to help spell junior center Stefanie Dolson, who has been playing with a stress fracture in her right ankle and plantar fasciitis in her left foot.
“I trust her and her teammates trust her,” Auriemma said. “I won’t hesitate to put Morgan out there early and often on Sunday, and I think she’s going to have a huge national championship tournament.”
There is the question of whether the bright lights of the Final Four might affect the freshmen. But Stewart said after playing a full season with games against teams such as Baylor, Notre Dame, Stanford and Louisville they are ready for this.
“I think the freshmen thing is over and there’s not time for the excuse of, ‘Oh, she’s a freshman,’” Stewart said. “We’ve been playing for five months now, and we know what we’re doing.”