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UConn's Freshmen Rush To Center Stage

Jeff Jacobs

March 31, 2013

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BRIDGEPORT — As Elena Delle Donne jogged off the court and through the tunnel Saturday, strains of "My Old Kentucky Home" filled a sold-out Webster Bank Arena. And while Delle Donne might have had nothing more to do with Kentucky than facing that commonwealth's great public university in her final college game, there was something fitting and appropriate in the wistful melody played by its school's band.

It also would be a fine prelude for the varsity in national flag blue.

Delle Donne, the great talent who decided that UConn was not for her, scored 33 points in Delaware's 69-62 Sweet 16 loss to the Wildcats. She had scored 33 points in tournament victories over West Virginia and North Carolina, too, and by this point anyone interested in reading this piece probably knows her story 33 times over.

"An incredible journey," Delle Donne said. "We made history in Delaware."

One state's history, of course, is another state's warmup act. And while making history in Delaware meant back-to-back Colonial Athletic Association titles and its first Sweet 16 appearance, history in Connecticut is made only with national titles.

While history will show that Delle Donne on Saturday passed Cheryl Miller, Chamique Holdsclaw and Maya Moore to move into fifth all-time in NCAA scoring at 3,039 points — "incredible and humbling," she said — history in Connecticut, like we said, will be made only with an eighth national title.

And on that count, as the curtain closed on Delle Donne, the UConn freshmen rushed the Bridgeport stage in a resounding 76-50 victory over Maryland. One athlete's ending is another's beginning, and as we hit the Elite Eight and the Final Four, Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson are demonstrating that the kids just might be ready for the biggest fights.

With 10 seconds remaining, coach Tina Martin did a cool thing and replaced Delle Donne to a huge ovation from all the Delaware fans who made the trip north. It was a cool thing, too, that many UConn fans joined in the ovation.

"It was extremely emotional," Delle Donne said. "It was a goodbye to the fans. Goodbye to Delaware."

"When you have somebody that special — character, honesty, the players love her, the community loves her — she deserves that moment," Martin said. "She is so special to the University of Delaware and the state of Delaware I wanted the fans who came up to one last time say thank you to her and the legacy she set."

"She takes everybody's best punch and still drops 30 on them."

Martin was talking about Delle Donne when she said that you don't see many women at 6-5 who can create their own shot. She was talking about Delle Donne taking you off the dribble, spinning and scooping and hitting fall-away jumpers.

She could have been talking about Stewart's future … maybe her immediate future. Remember, Delle Donne is 23. Stewart is 18.

"Our freshmen were great today," coach Geno Auriemma said after Stewart, Jefferson and Morgan Tuck combined for 35 points, 16 of 28 shooting and only one turnover. "They were the key to the game, for sure."

In a coincidence of pregame introductions, Delle Donne shook hands with Samari Walker, who also transferred from UConn, and guess what? There was no earthquake. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Delaware grad in attendance, was jumping up and down. Still, no earthquake.

It was Christie's failed bid to bring sports wagering in Jersey that led the NCAA to temporarily ban events in the state and lead the regional to Bridgeport. So maybe it all had some circular logic, because dealing with college freshmen is a gamble.

As great as Stewart looked in the early season, it became apparent against the top teams in the nation that she wasn't fully ready physically or mentally. She had a career-high six turnovers in the first meeting with Maryland. The Terps were the first team overtly physical with her.

"Ever since that Maryland game, I tried to get better dealing with the physicality, and today I think I did a better job," Stewart said.

There was one extraordinary sequence Saturday when she leaped to block a shot and came down the other end and drained a three-pointer. There was another play that, although the ball didn't drop, she got all the way to the rim on a tip. Active. Assertive. Eight rebounds, four blocks, three steals to go with 17 points, the kid was big time.

"It has been talked about and documented, Stewie's struggles have been a big story for our team this year," Auriemma said. "She started off doing everything she did everywhere else she had been. All of a sudden when she couldn't do it anymore, it became more of a mental thing. Some of it was physical, too."

Maryland is big. Maryland is tough.

"Stewie can't match up with them physically, so she has to be one step ahead, a little quicker, a little smarter and that takes time. Right away, from the Big East tournament, I saw a change in her. She was involved, not drifting away and hiding. She was more worried about failing than succeeding. It has turned in her head and she's in a really good place right now."

Jefferson, meanwhile, had a brilliant flash of a game.

"An X factor," Maryland coach Brenda Frese called Jefferson. "She made it really very difficult on Chloe Pavlech. "Defensively, her ball pressure took us out of anything we could. She was very aggressive. I thought her defense transferred to her offense."

Jefferson had hit double figures only seven times, but she has done it in two of the past three games. She might only be 5-7 and fairly slight, but she is a dart of speed. The way she pick-pocketed Pavlech on one score and later got her quick hands in to block big All-American Alyssa Thomas' shot was impressive.

"My life kind of flashed in front of my eyes with [Thomas] coming at me," Jefferson said, laughing.

Jefferson has been more assertive at practices, Auriemma said, yet at the same time has been under control.

"The problem when you're as quick as Moriah is, you don't always know what gear to be in, especially as freshman," Auriemma said. "There were a lot of times she was either going too fast or too slow and it has taken her kind of a long time to figure it out."

"I thought she was the difference in the game, defensively, offensively, creating."

Auriemma, despite a nimble attempt to block him from officials by Chris Dailey, took a technical late in the first half. As correct as he was in arguing a non-foul call on Tianna Hawkins against Kelly Faris, he ended up costing his team four points. Afterward, he called himself a "dumb ass." With that, he needs no further excoriating here beyond saying that he acted like a freshman.

Auriemma knows what's inside Stewart and Jefferson. He says there's no reason why they can't repeat this Monday night against Kentucky and maybe next weekend, too, in New Orleans. Delle Donne is Delle Done. The UConn freshmen are rushing the stage.

"They've played a lot of basketball in their young careers," Auriemma said. "They've played a lot of basketball where you lose and you're out. I think they understand that part of it. It's like when your mother used to get you up every day for school. She didn't have a choice. Maybe because they're in that same situation, they're responding the right way."

And maybe there's some history to be made.