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Stewie is coming of age

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published March 29. 2014 4:00AM
Jessica Hill/AP Photo
UConn sophomore Breanna Stewart, shown here shooting over Prairie View's Larissa Scott during an NCAA first-round game, has become the nation's most dominant player in part because she wants to be coached, according to coach Geno Auriemma, and always strives to get better.

Lincoln, Neb.

She came bounding out of practice Friday, down the tunnel and through the curtain at Pinnacle Bank Arena. This is Stewie. Happy. Giddy. Dare we even suggest innocent?

This is Stewie. The same kid who exited the court for the final time this season at Gampel Pavilion earlier this week alongside Stefanie Dolson, saluting the crowd with the royal wave, the Queen of England in Nikes, the slight hand twist accompanied by the 50,000-watt smile.

This is Stewie.

Could this be the same kid her coach was yelling at earlier this season for being stubborn? Stubborn. Stewie? C'mon. This is Ms. Sunny Disposition. Stubborn?

"That particular day," Auriemma was saying Friday, recalling a stern lecture he delivered to Breanna Stewart, the country's best women's college basketball player, "stemmed from the idea that Stewie really does want to be great. She wants to be coached. And she will let you coach her.

"Me being who I am, if for whatever reason I'm complaining about something and I find a little weakness and a scab opens up, I'm not going to the Neosporin. I'm getting the 93 octane Sunoco, pouring it on there and throwing a match. I want to see their tolerance level."

Stubborn. This is the word that's right up there with "champion" in the UConn women's basketball program. It's the chief export of many of Auriemma's favorites, most of whom welcome the Sunoco bath.

It was never better than with Svetlana Abrosimova, who drove Auriemma to delightful distress with her Russian resolve. Among his greatest hits back in the Sveta days:

• "Svet only understands English when I talk offense."

• Auriemma: "Svet, you were supposed to set a screen." Svet: "Why would I screen when I'm already open?"

• "I sent the whole team to a sports psychologist so Svet wouldn't feel self-conscious."

And yet who knew stubborn had so much appeal?

"You heard me use that word with Bria (Hartley), Sveta, Diana (Taurasi) and Jen (Rizzotti). There's a pattern there," Auriemma said. "Really, really good players are stubborn as hell. They think they know more than anybody else. One of their defense mechanisms in maintaining their incredible confidence level is to never admit they're wrong.

"If Maya (Moore) missed three straight shots in practice, she yelled at the manager and said 'I want a new ball,'" Auriemma said. "Is Stewie there? No, she's not at that level. But she is at a level if she misses an easy shot, she has this incredulous look about her."

So what is Stewie's level of stubborn?

"It was more evident last year," associate coach Chris Dailey said. "We see her ability and all that she can do. When she's not pushing herself to do those things at that level, we call that stubborn. I think we're allowed. She has said she wants to be great. Once you say that, you give us permission to identify and harp on all the things we know you have the capability to do in order to be considered great."

This just in: She is considered great. Stewart made the cover of Sports Illustrated recently. There's Stewie, flashing the pearly whites, surrounded by a gaggle of UConn fans with their index fingers raised, indicating they are No. 1 (even ESPN's Rebecca Lobo was in the photo).

In Emma Carmichael's story, Auriemma didn't call her stubborn. He just compared her to Kevin Durant. And then came this nugget from Dailey, who knew Stewart could benefit from extra early morning practice sessions during last season's conflicts, but never said a word to her.

"I was waiting for her to come and ask me," CD said in SI, "as opposed to me making her do it and it not becoming her own."

Stewart did in February.

Dailey said Friday: "I may have thought she needed the help. But we were trying to give her that balance. From August, we tried to talk with her about how people were going to play her and the expectations from your reputation coming in. But until you live it, you're not ready for it. Until you live it, understand it and embrace it, that's when you can move forward."

Think about the context. The Huskies dared lose games last regular season - gasp - twice to Notre Dame and once to Baylor. Stewart was nonexistent in the Baylor game. And yet Dailey resisted the temptation to order Stewart into the gym, recognizing the inherent differences in personalities: Some players need a pat on the back. Some need a kick in the ascot.

"It's like anything," Dailey said. "When you decide to lose weight or decide to do certain things, once it becomes your own, it's everything you want it to be. I felt like I wanted it to be from her so that it was real and it would continue as opposed to 'meet me in the gym' and it's punishment."

And so now the Huskies are in the land of Huskers for the regionals. Not-as-stubborn Stewie leads them against Brigham Young today. The best player in the land keeps getting better.

"When a kid stops listening, you know they don't really want to be great," Auriemma said. "They want to be left alone, patted on the back when they do great things and don't want to be told what they're not good at. Stewie wants to be coached. She wants to know what she has to get better at. That's why she's a great player."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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