STORRS — Louisville had the best team in the land within five points with five minutes remaining in the first half Sunday at a sold-out Gampel Pavilion. The subject of the UConn women playing short-handed brings no shortage of eye-rolling from opposing coaches nowadays, but the Huskies are short-handed nonetheless.
So there was Breanna Stewart, playing as many minutes as Geno Auriemma needed, with the basketball in her hands just outside the three-point arc.
"I knew I was coming to pinch post," Stewart said after her 24 points led UConn to an 81-64 rout of No. 4 Louisville. "I was faking the handoff. I was trying to see how the girl was playing me, and she wasn't up on me. I knew once I turned I'd be able to get the shot off."
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Bang. One three.
Same thing next possession. Bang. Another three.
With two shrugs of the shoulder, two turns of her willow-tree frame and a one-two to the Cardinals' jaw, Stewart blew open the rematch of the 2013 national championship game in 32 seconds.
"There's no question she's the best player in the country, in my opinion," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said. "When you have breakdowns, she makes you pay for them.
"We told our kids keep it in her face and make her drive or shoot a contested pull-up because that's not her strength. We were two feet away from her, but we had our hands down. Big-time shots."
Inside, outside, in no particular rush to complete the spectacular, Dirk Nowitzki seemed like the perfect male-to-female comparison. But now she is so clearly the best player, so clearly able to come down the court and do what she needs, Kevin Durant seems more and more apt.
"Those two names aren't bad," Stewart said, breaking into a smile, when asked upon whom she'd like her game to pattern. "I'm not sure. To be compared to those names is a really high honor. At the same time I'm trying to expand my game."
Auriemma was laughing about a play early in the second half when Stewart had the ball in front of the UConn bench. He wanted UConn to use some clock. Stewie just jumped up and knocked in a three right in front of him. No problem.
"What the hell are you going to do?" Auriemma said. "Look, Stewie scores them exactly when you need them. You can look at somebody with 24 points and 16 are meaningless. Every one of her points seems to mean something. It's like a guy who hits two home runs in the eighth inning when you're up 12-3. Who cares? Stewie hits three-run homers when we're down two. That's what separates her from everybody else."
In other words, compare her to Dirk or Durant; just don't compare her to A-Rod.
The Huskies have beaten five Top 10 teams by an average of 17 points. In the four games against Top 10 teams, since Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis hurt her elbow against Stanford, Stewart is averaging 37 minutes and 23 points. That's far above her season average of 29 minutes and 19 points.
By now we know how good Stewart can be. With Morgan Tuck out for the season, with Brianna Banks battling an ankle injury, with KML throwing another scare into UConn fans by banging her other elbow, the question now is how good does Stewart have to be?
"Of course you can," Walz answered when asked if UConn can win the national title with seven scholarship players. "It must just be awful to have to play Stewart 37 minutes. I don't know how he sleeps at night. Going home tonight and I had to play Moriah Jefferson 40 minutes and Stefanie Dolson 39, I probably wouldn't eat. It's not like you're playing two walk-ons. I love [walk-on] Shelby Harper to death. She started for me when we were hurt. I'm not sure how well he'd do if he had a walk-on that had to start the entire conference play."
Auriemma started hearing this kind of stuff early from Maryland's Brenda Frese, and he knows sympathy will be in short order. When you are undefeated and are shooting for your ninth national title, as Wilt Chamberlain once said, nobody roots for Goliath.
"Short of playing with four players, there's nothing else that would put us [deeper] in that danger zone," said Auriemma, insisting UConn already is in that zone. "We can't afford a sprained ankle. We can't afford three fouls in the first half. We can't afford the flu.
"I don't know if anybody is going to have a telethon to send us a couple of players when we need them. We've got to manage it best we can. This isn't going to be easy the next two months."
Stewart talks about preparing herself in practice this season for going 40 if needed. She said she believes the Huskies have enough.
"You don't want to have to play six players [as UConn did briefly Sunday when KML went out]," Stewart said, "but if you have to you will because the end result is winning a national championship."
Her coach, however, says this is a lot less about the physical with Stewart.
"Mentally, it's not even the same person that was playing last year at this time," Auriemma said. "The biggest difference I've seen in Stewie is her ability to shake off a bad play and come back with a great play. Last year a bad play in her mind would frustrate her so much that it would lead to two more bad ones.
"That's why she can make big shots in big moments that other players can't make. There's still a bunch of things she wants to get better at, obviously. She's not anywhere near where she wants to be ... but in terms of kind of shots she can make, it's just mental. She just thinks she can."
Asia Taylor said Louisville wanted to frustrate Stewart, limit UConn in transition because Stewart does much of her damage there.
"She made some tough shots and she made some when she was open," Taylor said. "She made us pay every time."
Still, Taylor insisted Brittney Griner is the best player she has ever seen.
Stopping Stewart vs. Maya Moore or Griner? With Stewart 17 of scoring her 1,000th point after 61 games — Moore set the UConn record by doing it in 55 — they're obviously different types of players, but the comparisons are inevitable now.
"Physically Maya could overpower you a lot," Auriemma said. "She intimidated you with her body type and the way she looked. Stewie doesn't really intimidate anybody the way she looks."
Maybe not, but Willow Tree spreads her branches everywhere. And after playing 22 minutes in her first game against Notre Dame and only seven against Baylor as a freshman, after averaging 31.6 minutes in the final three games to become the outstanding performer in the NCAA Tournament, Stewie is proving she can dominate over nearly all 40 if needed.
"It's harder [to defend Stewart], because she is 6-4," Walz said. "She can play inside-out. As talented as Maya is, she's fantastic, one of the best in the world, it's a different situation. She posted up some, but not a bunch. If you put a small guard on Stewart, she will go down in post. Griner would pop out to the three-point line, the whole game was to make it tough on her in the post. Stewart just has that all-around game.
"I'd rather her catch the ball on the perimeter than in the post. Our problem today when she caught it there, we had our hands down three or four times. She has a quick shot. That's what cost us.
So while Auriemma was talking about putting a protective bubble around his players because he can't afford for anyone else to get hurt, Walz was left desperately looking for a way to pop that bubble. So far, no amount of needling Auriemma has worked.