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Mohegan — Breanna Stewart is different than the other UConn women's basketball players who have been named their league's player of the year, for one reason because of the unique brand of joy she exhibits on the court.
"It's like a 12-year-old and you go to the school arts and crafts fair," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "And they tape a quarter to your craft to show you've done a good job. (Stewart) still celebrates the little things she does like a little kid. That's what makes her so good."
Stewart, a 6-foot-4 forward who leads the top-ranked and unbeaten Huskies entering the postseason with an average of 19.5 points per game - showing remarkable consistency as a sophomore that she did not have as a freshman - was named the inaugural American Athletic Conference Player of the Year on Friday.
The AAC tournament began Friday at Mohegan Sun Arena, where regular-season champion UConn (31-0) will open with a quarterfinal-round game today at 2 p.m. (no TV) against No. 8 Cincinnati (13-17), which defeated No. 9 Central Florida 54-52 in the tourney opener.
Auriemma was also named AAC Coach of the Year, while Tyler Scaife of Rutgers was named Freshman of the Year and Antonita Slaughter of Louisville the Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Previous awards were announced Thursday, including three for UConn's Stefanie Dolson. Dolson was named a first-team all-star, as well as earning the league's Defensive Player of the Year and sportsmanship awards.
Auriemma said Stewart, who is from Syracuse, most reminds him of 1991 graduate Kerry Bascom, the program's first All-American and a three-time Big East Conference Player of the Year, both of them "small-town, throwback" athletes.
"Like, 'What's all the fuss? I'm just playing basketball,'" Auriemma said. "She's certainly not the same as Diana (Taurasi) or Maya (Moore). She's not like those two either in personality or in the type of player she is."
Stewart's selection marks the 18th time a representative from UConn was named conference player of the year, the first since Maya Moore was named the Big East's top player for the third time in 2011. Stewart is the fifth UConn sophomore to be so honored, joining Bascom, Kara Wolters, Svetlana Abrosimova and Moore.
Averaging 20.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.6 assists over UConn's last seven games, Stewart is also a finalist for the many forthcoming national player of the year awards.
"Aside from the team aspect, I have individual goals for myself," Stewart said. "As a competitive person, I want to be looked at as the best player I can be. I think last year, it wasn't as hard, but there was a lot of ups and downs. One of my big, big focal points (this year) was to go out and be consistent."
Stewart, who wound up as Most Outstanding Player at last year's Final Four when UConn won its eighth national championship, said that she's worked hard to become a player her teammates can rely on.
Auriemma said last year for Stewart, during which she averaged 13.8 points and 6.4 rebounds but shot just 6-for-26 in the Huskies' three regular-season losses, ranged from great to average to terrible to great again.
"She didn't want a repeat of last year," Auriemma said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time (this year), she's been the same exact person and the same exact player."
"That's something I take very seriously," Stewart said. "As a teammate, you want them to be able to rely on you. Once I had it (their trust), I became more comfortable. … I'm doing a lot of things better. I'm rebounding better. My production on the court is better."
Auriemma, meanwhile, earned his 11th league coach of the year award, with the first 10 coming in the Big East.
This year's 31-0 record marked the Huskies' 19th 30-win season under Auriemma and its seventh perfect regular season. Auriemma is 870-133 at UConn and has signed on to continue coaching the U.S. National Team through 2016, having led the team to a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics in London.