An unbeatable UConn pair: Stewart — selfless, unassuming, coachable — fits Auriemma mold

UConn forward Breanna Stewart embraces coach Geno Auriemma during the second half of the NCAA championship game Tuesday.
UConn forward Breanna Stewart embraces coach Geno Auriemma during the second half of the NCAA championship game Tuesday. John Bazemore/AP Photo

It was among a few thousand examples of Geno being Geno. Who else, really, could invoke the name of a serial killer to prove a point?

"There's no substitute for talent," UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma once said. "I'd recruit Charles Manson if I thought he could help us win."

This was well before Auriemma became iconic, now the coach with nine NCAA championships, most in women's basketball history. And he might have fibbed a little. Auriemma doesn't recruit just anybody. There are All-Americans and then Auriemma All-Americans.

An Auriemma All-American is, well, Breanna Stewart. This is the kid they call "Stewie," who just completed her sophomore season with her second straight national championship and second straight Most Outstanding Player Award at the Final Four. Only four other players - Cheryl Miller (Southern California), Candace Parker (Tennessee), Diana Taurasi (Connecticut) and Chamique Holdsclaw (Tennessee) - have earned two Most Outstanding Player Awards at the Final Four. And Stewart has two years remaining.

"I'm really happy that we could send Stef and Bri (seniors Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley) off on this note, and they deserve it," Stewart said after UConn dusted Notre Dame, 79-58, in the NCAA title game last week in Nashville. "And when it's time to get back to work we'll do that, but right now we're enjoying this moment."

That's an Auriemma All-American. Deflect praise, talk about teammates before yourself. It's about something bigger than you. This is an Auriemma staple. It's not about you. That's why Auriemma always tells the story about how they spelled his last name wrong on his first championship ring.

"No matter how great you think you are," he said, "there's always someone out there who doesn't give a (hoot)."

"Stewie" arrived on campus much the way she is now. Gangly and goofy. With an innocence belying an inner executioner. Many observers of the UConn program chuckle at Stewart's demeanor - she often bounds instead of walks - and ask themselves, "This is the best player in the country?"

Answer: She sure is. It's all part of the package.

"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."

Stewart arrived when the Huskies already had a "Brianna" (Banks) and a "Bria" (Hartley). Dolson and her blithe sense of humor once noted that when someone said "Bri" on the team bus, three different heads turned. Dolson to the rescue.

"'Stewie' just seemed to fit,'" Dolson said, bestowing a nickname that stuck like one of Stewart's jumpers. Stewie. Sort of frolicky and playful. Perfect.

Stewart won every major award in the women's game this year. Naismith Player of the Year, Associated Press Player of the Year. It wasn't easy, given the competition: Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike, who likely will be the No. 1 pick in Monday's WNBA Draft to the Connecticut Sun, Odyssey Sims of Baylor, who came within an eyelash of scoring the most points in a single season in women's basketball history, and Notre Dame's Kayla McBride.

Stewart was presented the Associated Press award last week at the Final Four in a cramped meeting room. Present: the media, her coaches and teammates … and Notre Dame. Yes. The enemy. Front and center, shooting her daggers. Stewart handled herself just as Auriemma and associate head coach Chris Dailey teach.

"I want to thank the coaches and the teammates for helping me throughout the season," Stewart said. "I wouldn't be in this position without them."

The happiest news of all for fans of the UConn women: Stewart still has two years remaining. This is the biggest difference between men's and women's basketball. Men's players of commensurate talent would long since have departed for a professional league. Stewart will remain at Connecticut, earn a degree, and later quite likely become the first pick in the 2016 WNBA Draft.

"She's really grown up," Auriemma said. "It's not easy to be that good when you're that young and haven't played a lot of college basketball. She has years more experience as to what it takes to go through a college basketball season and, knowing her, I think she is going to get better and better each day each week and each month."

m.dimauro@theday.com

Texas A&M's Karla Gilbert (34) and Connecticut's Breanna Stewart (30) battle for a rebound during the first half of the regional final in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Lincoln, Neb.
Texas A&M's Karla Gilbert (34) and Connecticut's Breanna Stewart (30) battle for a rebound during the first half of the regional final in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Lincoln, Neb. Dave Weaver/AP File

Parade of champions

What: Parade celebrating the national championships of the UConn men's and women's basketball teams
When: 4 p.m. today
Where: Starts and ends at the Connecticut State Capitol Building, Hartford. A rally will follow immediately on the North portico of the Capitol.
More information: www.hartford.com

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