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    Friday, December 02, 2022

    Watch 'Stewie' and you see Elena


    It was either fitting, or ironic, that two games ended with two standing ovations for two such similar players. Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart. Except that maybe - probably, even - nobody in women's basketball has them occupying the same airspace.

    Delle Donne's college career ended Saturday at Webster Bank Arena in the Sweet 16, succumbing to Kentucky and Kastine Evans' killer three late in the game. When it ended, a UConn crowd gave Delle Donne a standing ovation, prompting a tweet from Elena after the game saluting UConn's "classy fans."

    Stewart's college career, meanwhile, accelerated into the passing lane a few hours later, helping the Huskies reach the Elite Eight for the eighth straight season. "Stewie," as her teammates call her, was magnificent: 17 points, eight rebounds, a 3-pointer and four blocks.

    So maybe this is the time to issue this piece of breaking news: While we all can't seem to get enough of Elena here … we already have Elena here.

    And her name is Breanna Stewart.

    Breanna Stewart can do all the things Elena Delle Donne can.

    She might leave here as UConn's greatest player.

    Because while we all hyperventilate over Delle Donne's ability to dominate inside and outside, the 6-foot-5 forward with the finesse of a guard, Stewart owns the same set of skills.

    "She's a freshman. But she has a lot of what Elena has," UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey said.

    Later, Dailey said, "The only reason I didn't want (Delaware) in our bracket is because it all becomes about Elena leaving Connecticut. There should be a moratorium, just like with Samarie (Walker of Kentucky, also a former UConn player). One year after they leave, it's over. Just stop talking about it. We have the players who are here."

    And what other player in the country would you want right now more than Stewart?

    And if you answered "Griner" or "Diggins" just remember: They're done in the next 10 days, win or lose. Stewart has three more years.

    "(Stewart) is working harder and when you work harder, you give yourself confidence," Dailey said. "It's like school. If you're more prepared to take an exam, you walk with your head up, knowing you'll do well. Maybe the last month or so, she's spent more time working on it, concentrating."

    Stewart does not have, say, Diana Taurasi's charisma. (Who does?) But she's far less stoic than Delle Donne, a sense of humor in there dying to surface. It could make her a fan favorite when this is over. That and the ability to parlay blocks, dunks and threes.

    "Your greatest weakness is your greatest strength," Dailey said. "She's a little bit of a goofball off the court, just going with the flow. It's also a weakness in basketball when you are trying to play at a certain intensity level. She's learning how to balance that."

    Happily, though, Stewart's progression is noteworthy.

    It was after the first loss to Notre Dame this season, the one-pointer at Gampel Pavilion, that UConn coach Geno Auriemma ran his hand through his hair, as he does in times of distress.

    He was wondering about whether Stewart, shaped a lot like 6 o'clock, would be ready for being a nightly punching bag.

    "She's maybe not as big as most players, so they think it's easy to beat her up," junior Stef Dolson said. "But now if someone is going to push her, she rolls right off them and drives to the basket."

    Dailey: "Maya (Moore) didn't like the physical part of the game, either. But it's a matter of learning how to handle it."

    Auriemma: "Stewie can't match up with some players physically. She's got to be one step ahead of them, a little quicker, a little smarter. That takes time. Right after the Big East tournament, I saw a change in her. She started getting more involved in what we were doing rather than just drifting and hiding."

    There was no hiding Saturday. The Player Everybody Came To See was left to exit, stage right. The Player Nobody Came To See, the one with the same set of skills, exited to a standing ovation.

    You always wanted Elena here, you say?

    You've got her.

    And they call her Stewie.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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