Stewart, UConn women begin quest for four titles in a row.. Rich Elliott has a preview.
By Rich Elliott
STORRS – Breanna Stewart had not yet played a game at UConn. She had not yet emerged as the best player in the country, one of the best to ever play women’s college basketball. Still, her intentions were crystal clear.
Stewart declared that her goal was to win four national championships with the Huskies. This was not a level of cockiness on her part. Ever confident, she simply knew that this was what she wanted to accomplish.
There have been countless number of players that have shared the same goal over the years. Yet, it is Stewart that has positioned herself within a matter of months of making her dream a reality.
“My rationale was like anyone else’s,” Stewart said. “I’m coming here for four years. Why wouldn’t I want my goal each year to be to win the national championship? I wasn’t afraid to say it. When I was a freshman it was a lofty expectation when you haven’t won one. I had confidence in what we wanted to do and look at where we are.”
Stewart, the two-time national Player of the Year and three-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player, and the top-ranked Huskies will begin their march toward a record fourth straight national championship Monday at No. 6 Ohio State (5:30 p.m.; ESPN).
It is a journey they collectively hope will end with a victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis April 5.
“This one is different,” Stewart said. “Obviously, for this season, individually we want to win the national championship. But we know what’s at stake. We know we have an opportunity to do something that no one has ever done before in the women’s game … win four in a row
“I think it’s something that’s going to motivate us even more, make sure we’re ultra-focused whether it’s individual (workouts), practice or pick-ups because to do something that no one has ever done before we’re going to have to work harder than anyone has ever worked before.”
This will mark the second time that UConn will take aim at winning a fourth straight national championship. Led by Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Asjha Jones, Tamika Williams and ultimately Diana Taurasi, the Huskies won three straight from 2002-2004.
However, in Year 1 post-Taurasi in 2005, UConn lost to top-ranked Stanford 76-59 in the Kansas City regional semifinals. It was the earliest NCAA tournament exit for the Huskies since losing to Iowa State in the regional semifinals in 1999.
``I want to enjoy it,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “That’s one of the big things that I want to do. This might be one of those things that you don’t get a chance to do very often in your life so I want to enjoy it. I want to have fun with those guys. I want to see how good they can be, and I want to share in a lot of their successes this year. And sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes you’re so busy worrying about the next thing, the next thing, the next thing that you forget to be in the moment. So right now I’m really enjoying seeing those guys every day.”
Tennessee is the only other program that has had the opportunity to win four straight national championships, winning the title 1996 through 1998. Similar to UConn this season, the Lady Vols boasted multiple All-Americans in Tamika Catchings and Chamique Holdsclaw in 1998-99.
However, Tennessee saw its quest for four end with a 69-63 loss to Duke in the 1999 regional final. It remains a game that Missouri State coach and former Lady Vols point guard Kellie (Jolly) Harper still vividly remembers.
"After the game I walked into a room and saw (former Tennessee coach) Pat (Summitt),’’ said Harper, who was part of three national championship teams before being denied as a senior. ``I don't know if she saw me, but she was crying and it's the only time I've seen her cry. But it wasn't for herself, it was the team and the seniors that she felt so bad for. She wanted us to win four in a row.
"It's not like we didn't work hard or didn't have the energy to win it or go to the Final Four. I don't think that at the time I could understand it. The sense of urgency we needed, the sense we needed to keep getting better day by day, I don't know if we had that. It's a process. For us, we thought we were going to play for the national championship and it was like we would just get there and we didn't take care of all the things that we needed to get to that point.’’
Harper offered her advice for the Huskies.
``You have to believe in the process and the vision that you have to take you there,’’ Harper said. ``Enjoy the process in November and December and beyond that takes you into March and the (NCAA) tournament. You have to take care of the little things. Just because you have the best players doesn't mean that you'll have the best team. A lot goes into it. It sounds simple, but it's not. It's a great challenge and you have to be ready for it."
Since Stewart, fellow senior All-American Moriah Jefferson and red-shirt junior Morgan Tuck arrived at UConn in 2012, the Huskies are 113-5 overall and 78-1 over the last two seasons. Sophomore budding star Kia Nurse also returns as UConn will begin the season riding a 37-game winning streak.
Internally, they are not overly burdened by any pressure to win a fourth straight national championship. Another title would be the 11th in program history and would thrust Auriemma past former UCLA men’s basketball coaching legend John Wooden for the most in the history of college basketball.
``It's something that’s never been done by a women's team so there’s pressure there," Jefferson said. "But we have to come out and prepare the way we have and approach it the way that we have. It worked the first, second and third time. We've come out and are working harder than ever to get there and get the job done."
Stewart and Jefferson were named to the five-player preseason All-America team by The Associated Press. Tuck unquestionably has the ability to earn All-American honors at season’s end. So does Nurse.
Stewart (17.6), Tuck (14.4), Jefferson (12.4) and Nurse (10.2) accounted for 61.1 percent of the team’s scoring last season as UConn finished 38-1. Judging by what Auriemma has witnessed during the preseason, all four players are better than they were a year ago.
“They’ve all improved, and that’s what you hope,” Auriemma said. “Moriah’s really made a huge jump from last year, and I’d say she was probably the best point guard in the country last year. She’s a lot better than she was last year. The same with Stewie. Stewie’s a lot better than she was last year. So is Tuck. And so is Kia Nurse. Those four came back a lot better than they were. That’s not always the case. Sometimes guys that have had a lot of success come back with, `Hey, I’m the same because it was good enough last year so it should be good enough this year.’ But I’ll tell you, these four guys are a lot better than they were last year. I’m impressed with them.”
Stewart said that she can feel the excitement as the Huskies prepare to open the season. There is a lot at stake from a historical perspective and the challenge that lies ahead is one UConn will embrace.
This is a confident group, one that is poised to embark on the program’s latest march toward achieving greatness.
``We do feel really prepared,” Stewart said. “We know this is going to be probably the hardest year we’ve had. No one wants to see us do this besides us. And with that it brings out the competitive fire in all of us. We want to prove everyone wrong and show everyone that whether you want us to do it or not, we’re going to do it.”