UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Without slowing down from winning a fourth consecutive NCAA title, chosen No. 1 in the WNBA Draft, graduating college, being named to the U.S. Women’s national team, and moving to the unfamiliar city of Seattle—all within two months—Breanna Stewart was eager to return to the state she called home for four years.
“I’m happy to be home,” she said. “I haven’t seen my family in months.”
Before the game began, local Connecticut sports reporters were swarming her with mics like paparazzi at Mohegan Sun Arena, with much hoopla awaiting her return to play as a pro Friday in the eastern Connecticut locale where she became a superstar in the basketball world. The former UConn star, who only two months ago ended one of the most celebrated and decorated college careers of any athlete, was treated like a Prodigal Son upon her return to the Nutmeg State.
I think there’s a little pressure that you want to do well and come back to the place where you were for four years. But after that, I think you kind of get used to it. It’s just another game.
Stewart’s Seattle Storm made their lone trip to the Mohegan Sun Arena and a packed house full of fans that were undoubtedly there to see “Stewie,” as Connecticut fans and close associates know her as.
In a class of her own as the greatest product who ever played college basketball in the Nutmeg State, Stewart’s return was an event. With a record four straight NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player nods, she led UConn on its 75-0 run and helped fuel the discourse that their dominance was bad for the game. And when she hit the court, fans donning their UConn championship apparel and a small section of Seattle Storm fans who traveled from Canada above the Northwest border of the country cheered loudly for Stewart as she stepped to mid-court for the opening tip.
Located in New England, yet divided in their sports loyalties between Boston and New York teams, Connecticut residents take great pride in the UConn women’s basketball team. A record-setting 11-time champions, the program has featured standout such as Rebecca Lobo, Jenn Rizzotti, Maya Moore, Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and Tina Charles who have also left their mark on the WNBA over its 20 seasons. But Stewart just may go down as the best ever at UConn and the greatest player to ever play a college basketball game.
The WNBA’s May Rookie of the Month has already had the bitter taste of losing in the professional ranks. The Storm went into Friday’s game against the Connecticut Sun with a 3-5 record, and are in the middle of the pack of the WNBA’s Western Conference. Unfamiliar terrain, for sure.
Days before the game, Stewart detailed her newfound experience as a pro adjusting to the reality of not always ending up in the win column, telling members of the media in a teleconference that “Losing games is difficult. But making sure that I continue to keep that mentality that losing isn't OK [is important]. I've lost five games already this season and that's the most I lost in four years at UConn. But obviously this is a whole different level, playing against the best players in the world every single night."
Stewart’s legendary college coach Geno Auriemma, many members of the UConn squad, and past team leaders like Lobo and her kids were in attendance at the seldom packed arena to show their support.
The Storm acknowledge what it meant for Stewart as well. When they team’s starting lineups were called by the arena’s announcer, the crowd erupted. The fans made the scene feel like it was a ceremonious scrimmage during a UConn's Midnight Madness at Gampel Pavilion.
Stewart, averaging 17.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and 3.0 blocks per game, got off to a slow start and ended the first half scoreless. She was visibly frustrated, yet continued to play both ends of the floor like a rookie trying to earn her unassumed roster spot. The Storm dominated most of the game, led by Bird’s season-high 24 points.
Stewart finally found her rhythm around the block with hookshots and layups to add up to her 10 points on 4-14 all in the second half coupled with a dozen rebounds. But towards the end of the fourth quarter, the Sun stole momentum with a 9-0 run. Morgan Tuck’s 3-pointer over Stewart tied the game at 73-73 with a minute left. Then with the frenzied crowd seeing the Sun hit two free throws and putback-layup from Alyssa Thomas, the home squad were up one 0.6 seconds left on on the verge of officially spoiling Stewart’s return.
The Storm set up a play for an inbound pass from halfcourt on the righthand side of the their basket. Stewart caught the pass near the baseline, turned inward, and was barely able to gather herself with under one second left to put up a clean shot attempt against Tuck. She missed, and the crowd cheered for the Sun who avoided tying their franchise record seven-game losing streak.
Before heading to the locker room, the Storm exchanged pounds for a good game played. The crowd applauded for the Sun, but you could tell they really wanted Breanna to hit a miraculous shot.
The atmosphere in the Storm locker room was somber, realizing that they let a game that was in their grasp ultimately get away. Stewart spoke about her performance and the pressure to produce in front of so many supporters.
“Of course, I think you want to play well in front of your family and friends for your return, but I really wasn’t over thinking it. I just got off to a slow start,” Stewart said. “I think that didn’t help our team, but either way, it was nice to play in front of a home crowd.”
This was déjà vu for Bird, who has produced in front of the Connecticut faithful for years in the enemy’s uniform.
“As a UConn player, it’s always good to come back here because a lot of these people are UConn fans as well,” Bird said “So even though they support the Sun, I think they enjoy watching us play and we enjoy playing in front of them. I think there’s a little pressure that you want to do well and come back to the place where you were for four years. But after that, I think you kind of get used to it. It’s just another game. That’s probably the most you should think of it instead of putting so much pressure on yourself.“
It goes without saying that Bird is serving as a mentor to Stewart. If anyone could give advice on what to expect upon her return to Connecticut.
“What I'm going through, she's gone through—coming from Connecticut, being drafted, going through this whole process," Stewart said. "She's one of the best players in this league, the best point guard in this league. What she's been able to do throughout her career is what I want to do, the impact she's made, that kind of thing. I think she's working to help me adapt to this league."
Playing alongside a two-time WNBA champion, and one who has been through the up and down year in all of her 14 seasons with the franchise, will ease Stewart’s transition to WNBA. Whether or not she’ll have as celebrated of a professional career remains to be seen. First, she just needs to weather the storm of mediocrity as she starts anew 3,000 miles away from home.