WNBA title proves to be Breanna Stewart’s destiny
UConn coach Geno Auriemma couldn’t stop grinning. The player who led his Huskies to four consecutive NCAA titles had just won her first WNBA championship at the age of 24.
And after winning the regular-season MVP, Breanna Stewart became the sixth player in league history to earn WNBA Finals MVP too.
Auriemma said it all happened exactly as he expected for Stewart, the Seattle Storm forward who had a 30-point, eight-rebound performance in a 98-82 Game 3 victory over Washington to complete a championship series sweep Wednesday.
“Stewie is not the kind who breaks the door down, and comes in and goes, ‘Watch me!’ ” Auriemma said as he stood outside the cramped but joyous Storm locker room at EagleBank Arena. “She’s never been like that. So I wasn’t surprised it took her a couple of years to get the lay of the land, see how everything worked, see what the pro game was all about.
“And then once she figures it all out, then, ‘Boom!’ It probably wasn’t going to happen for her as a rookie, the way it did when she was a freshman. But it wasn’t going to take her 10 years, either. This is in keeping with her personality. She’s the most unassuming, low-key superstar.”
Stewart struggled a bit her first year at UConn but had things under control by the NCAA tournament. She was the most outstanding player of that event all four years at UConn before being drafted No. 1 by the Storm in 2016. She was WNBA rookie of the year, but the team results then and in 2017 were not up to her standards.
Stewart was determined to change that for her third season. She averaged 21.8 points and 8.4 rebounds this season, and 24.6 and 6.9 in the playoffs.
Wednesday, she was 4-of-5 from 3-point range, part of the Storm’s 13-for-26 performance from beyond the arc, and that made her even more effective.
“Having perimeter-oriented post players makes it hard to guard us,” Stewart said. “I wanted to be aggressive early and kind of show what was going on here, and what we were after. We didn’t want to have to come back for Game 4.”
Stewart got a chance to play with the pros in the 2014 world championship, where she won a gold medal before her junior year in college. By the time she became a professional, she was more than ready. But like Auriemma said, the Storm weren’t quite there yet when she was a rookie. Another frustrating season and first-round playoff loss in 2017 weighed on Stewart.
So did, briefly, a season-opening loss this year to Phoenix.
“We were like, ‘Oh, crap, what kind of year is this going to be?'” Seattle point guard Sue Bird said. “Because we hadn’t clicked yet. But pretty quickly, like a week later, we turned it right back around, and then onward and upward from there.”
Bird was part of UConn’s undefeated 2002 squad that featured her, Swin Cash, Diana Taurasi, Asjha Jones and Tamika Williams — and is largely regarded as the best team in NCAA history — and Stewart was part of a winning streak that eventually stretched to 111 games after she left.
That they could be the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick 14 years apart for the same team and then win a WNBA title together is a wonderful twist of fate, Auriemma said.
“For Sue to have Stewie come into her life at the right time, it’s kind of like the absolute perfect ingredient that Sue needed to put a capper on her career,” Auriemma said. “And maybe this isn’t even it for her. She could win another one. To see this in person, it’s really hard to describe.”
Bird won her first two titles in Seattle with Lauren Jackson anchoring the post; they were about seven months apart in age and grew up together with the Storm. Jackson is retired and Bird will turn 38 next month, but she says the younger Storm players have helped keep her young. Not to mention, they are really talented. Especially Stewart.
“Coming into this season, she really just changed her mindset. She had specific goals,” Bird said of Stewart. “Obviously, the kid knows how to win. Sometimes it just takes a couple of years to really figure out yourself in this league, because it’s a very tough league to play in. And now here she is. She’s figured it out. It’s probably going to get a little harder from here, to be honest, but I think she’s ready for it.”
Auriemma thinks so, too. Stewart joined Cynthia Cooper (who did it twice), Lisa Leslie, Taurasi, Jackson and Sylvia Fowles in earning both MVP awards in a season. And no one will be surprised if Stewart does that again.
“I can read Stewie’s mind sometimes,” Auriemma said. “It’s like she’s just thinking, ‘Hey, one’s going in.’ It’s unbelievable. She just plays like everyone else thinks it’s a big deal, but she doesn’t.
“The bigger the game gets, the lower her heart rate gets, it seems. Most players get really excited or nervous. For Stewie, it’s like everything is in slow motion for her. It’s a big game, and it’s like, ‘When do I prove to everybody that I am who I am? I’ll do that now.’ That’s just how Stewie is.”