Stewart has entered rare air

New Orleans

It is the blessing and the curse of playing UConn women's basketball: You can become the game's royalty here. But you are judged against royalty. The Gatsbys of the game established the parameters and made the memories long before you. And you bear the responsibility of the tradition.

All of which makes Breanna Stewart's first Final Four foray almost mystical. Twenty-nine points. Sent Notre Dame bye bye. It is either ironic or a colossal coincidence that the greatest one ever in the program, Diana Taurasi, went 1-for-15 against the same team in her first Final Four.

Stewie got 29.

It was a night in St. Louis 12 years ago. Taurasi, whom we came to know as tougher than Clorox and more clutch than Mo Rivera, cried in the locker room. Said it was all her fault. (It surely wasn't). It was the most human we'd see her in four years here. Then she was the backbone of three straight national championships.

Stewie got 29.

Now this is not to suggest Stewart can eclipse Taurasi's accomplishments. Or come close. But this freshman shaped like 6 o'clock, the forward with the guard's skills, the dunker and the shooter, sure has the arsenal.

"She was fantastic. Just unbelievable," Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said of Stewart, following UConn's 83-65 victory, turning all the previous angst against the Irish into a duller ache, offering a night of temporary joy, at least until Tuesday's tip.

Surely, there are enough frauds out there delivering I-told-you-sos today about Stewart. You knew it all along. Right. That would make you unique. Or at least fodder for a rousing, "liar, liar pants on fire." Because UConn coach Geno Auriemma didn't know this would happen so fast. Hell, Stewart didn't either.

It was after UConn's 73-72 loss to the Irish in Storrs in early January that Auriemma spent time with a few writers well after the news conference ended. He wondered aloud how long it would take Stewart to adjust to the physical nature of the college game. Would she do so this season? Could UConn win if she didn't? How would she handle being a punching bag? He was even unsure of how Stewart fit into the offense.

Now she's option Nos. 1, 1A and 1B.

"She's gotten stronger mentally, stronger emotionally," Auriemma said Sunday. "Stewie really take things to heart and puts a lot of pressure on herself. When she wasn't playing well, it got to her pretty severely. After the end of the regular season, there was a renewed, 'I'm not going to settle for this anymore.'"

It was suggested here last week that UConn fans should stop pining for Elena Delle Donne because there's a kid here who has her skills. That was poohed poohed in a few precincts.

Question: How's Stewart doing so far?

"It's kind of rare for a 19 year old to be able to do this," Auriemma said. "I do think that getting back in the gym and being able to clear your mind and go back to what you love doing helped. Once she started playing well, it just snowballed."

Stewart, who aw-shucksed her way through interviews, did credit going back to the gym and working out with associate head coach Chris Dailey to begin the recovery process.

And now upstart Louisville, the kids who took down Brittney Griner, have the task of stopping Breanna Stewart, too. That's what the talk becomes today. There's really no time to enjoy slaying Notre Dame. Maybe in time, though, we'll remember 29 points on this stage against that team.

"We knew we had to beat Notre Dame. We couldn't count on them losing the game," Auriemma said. "For 40 minutes, we competed and played about as hard as we're capable of playing. I couldn't be happier for them or more proud of them. We've come a long way and it's really, really, really rewarding.

"The Notre Dame team we beat is a great, great, great team," he said. "You don't beat us seven of eight times without being a great team."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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