For the first time in 288 days, Breanna Stewart pulled up for a jumper in a live game. Nine months after tearing her Achilles in the EuroLeague final on a similar shot, Stewart buried a three-pointer right in front of the UConn bench.
The Seattle Storm superstar missed the final six shots of her night as she finished with just three points and three rebounds. Yet there’s no question Stewart’s return in Team USA’s 79-64 win over the Huskies was a resounding success.
“I felt good,” she said. “I think the thing is I have two different perspectives on it. One, happy to be out there. Being on the court is a huge step and something that I’m not going to overlook. At the same time, the other way I’m looking at it is things could’ve been better. We won the game. I was being aggressive and continuing to get back into my rhythm, the timing of things, playing game-like takes a second to adjust.”
The last time we saw Stewart on the basketball court stateside, she was at the height of her powers after coming off a year in which she won nearly every trophy imaginable. After being sidelined for so long, she wasn’t going to instantly look anywhere close to the same player. But it was less about her performance on the stat sheet.
“She looked good physically. She moved well, not tentative. Played the game well,” acting USA head coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Obviously there’s a level of conditioning that you are just trying to survive a little bit but that was true of a lot of the other players coming off an injury where you’re not just performing, you’re focused on trying to get your wind and performing at the same time. And then obviously the rust of not making shots, that would be the most obvious.”
Stewart said her minutes restriction made finding a rhythm tough but admitted that just being back on the court was a huge step in her recovery. From here, she’ll have the rest of the week to practice before playing again on Sunday against Louisville. From there, she’ll head to Serbia with the national team for the 2020 Olympic Qualifying Tournament.
Since the US is already qualified for Tokyo 2020 after winning the 2018 World Cup, those games will serve as an opportunity for Stewart to continue to build herself back up to 100 percent.
“These games are perfect for me to get in a rhythm, play with the best people and be managed,” she said. “I’m looking forward to when we go to Louisville and hoping its a little better than it is today.”
UConn hangs tough
Geno Auriemma thought it was about to be the worst loss of his career. Three minutes in, the coach called a timeout with his team trailing 7-0. The Huskies were 0-of-3 three from the field and looked visibly out-matched by the national team.
“I thought we were going to get shutout. I was really worried that we wouldn’t score. I really was,” Auriemma said. “I know when the game started they were nervous as hell. They were scared to death no matter how much they thought ‘Yeah this is so cool.’ They were dying that first timeout. The look on their face was like ‘whew.’”
Out of the break, Crystal Dangerfield hit a three to get UConn on the board, which helped to settle the team down. After that, the Huskies not only hung with Team USA, they dominated them for stretches.
In the second quarter, UConn outscored the national team 20-10. But even more impressive was the fact that the Huskies did most of that with a motley crew of Evelyn Adebayo, Molly Bent, Dangerfield, Anna Makurat and Megan Walker. UConn went into halftime tied and though Team USA eventually pulled away, it was still an impressive performance for the Huskies.
“Our kids, they hung in there,” Auriemma said. “They hung in there and they kept battling, made just enough shots and we were tied at halftime, it was half a win. ... for 35 minutes, whatever it was, we held in there. Then, you know, we wore out. They’re just too big, too talented, too smart.”
Typically, UConn is busy rolling over the AAC at this point in the calendar with 30, 40 even 50-point wins. But for one night, the Huskies got a taste of their own medicine.
“Now I know what it felt like when I had certain teams and we played against other teams,” Auriemma said. “When we would switch every screen and you couldn’t run your offense against us. You couldn’t get a pass complete. You couldn’t get a shot. We used to do that to teams. Tonight, I was on the other end of that.”
The final score doesn’t mean much — beating a team full of professionals is going to be hard by any stretch — yet the fact that UConn played with the national team for 40 minutes should be a huge boost to its confidence.
“I think it’s a good sign if we can fight these guys,” Makurat said. “These are the best players in the world. We show up today, we play as a team and we fight them. They were a little bit bigger than us so we just gave everything we had. I think it’s a great lesson, if we can face them we can face anybody.”
Geno appreciative of USA experience
For 24 years, Auriemma coached players for four years before they moved on to life after college, whether that was the real world for some or the professional ranks for others. But in 2009, he got a chance to be on the sidelines with some of his program’s all-time greats yet again as the coach of the US national team.
At UConn, Auriemma spends most of his time molding his team into great basketball players and people. But when he got the chance to re-connect on the court with those same players years later, it gave him a new perspective on the game.
“I learned a lot from coaching my former players in their 30s,” Auriemma said. “Maybe they learned from me in my late teens and I was learning from them in their 30’s. They were teaching me things about basketball that I wouldn’t have seen because they’ve seen it all.”
Huskies honor GiGi
In a night of tributes to Kobe Bryant and his 13-year old daughter Gianna, who tragically died along with seven others in a helicopter crash on Sunday, there was one that stood out. UConn left a seat empty on the bench with flowers and a No. 2 jersey draped over the chair — the number Gianna wore.
Mambacita is forever a Husky pic.twitter.com/3wdAbdK0Ye— UConn Women's Hoops (@UConnWBB) January 27, 2020
Gianna was a well-known fan of UConn and was “hellbent” on playing for the Huskies. Kobe and GiGi came to a handful of games over the last few years and got a chance to meet the team on a number of occasions. Auriemma reminisced on the first time those two came into the locker room:
“The first time that they were at a game, she was like a little kid looking up at our players,” he said. “You could just see the look in her eyes like she was so excited. Imagine the absurdity of that. Your father is Kobe Bryant and the most excited you’ve been in a long time is being around college women’s basketball players. But that’s what it meant to her. That’s what she aspired to be. In that room... you have GiGi and her role models and people she looks up to and you have our players looking at her dad.”
“When she came up here on campus, if she could’ve stayed, I think she would’ve.”