BRIDGEPORT — Friday night sent shockwaves through the world of women’s college basketball as lower-seeded teams won all four games in the Sweet 16, including No. 4 seeds Stanford and Syracuse taking down No. 1 seeds Notre Dame and South Carolina.
With so many upsets, No. 5 seed Mississippi State had high hopes of continuing the trend by taking down the No. 1 overall seed UConn Huskies.
Breanna Stewart had something else in mind.
The senior forward put together one of her best performances as a Husky in UConn’s 98-38 win over the Bulldogs. The 60-point victory was the largest margin of victory in the Sweet 16 in NCAA tournament history.
“It’s a reminder that you can’t take any days off, any games off and crazy things happen in March,” Stewart said of Friday night’s upsets. “We want to make sure that when we came out today, that that wasn’t going to happen with us.”
UConn wasted no time putting Mississippi State away, jumping out to a 13-0 lead and holding the Bulldogs scoreless for nearly half of the opening quarter. Stewart helped orchestrate a first quarter rivaling their 41-4 opening sequence in the first round against Robert Morris, scoring 14 points as the Huskies led Mississippi State 32-4 after the first ten minutes.
“Well, the game plan is similar to what every single game plan is. We want to disrupt them defensively,” Stewart said of UConn’s game plan for the first quarter. “And we had to do that with team defense. And it seemed like early we were able to get a lot of open shots, get out in transition, and from there, everything seemed to be falling.”
Stewart finished the day with 22 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks and three assists in just 25 minutes, exiting the game for good with 3:52 left in the third quarter. When she wasn’t blocking and altering shots on the defensive end, she was lights-out on offense, shooting 8-of-10 from the field and making both of her three-point attempts.
The 22-point performance marked the 10th time in 20 career NCAA tournament games that Stewart has scored 20 or more points. She also posted her seventh double-double in the NCAA tournament, tied with Tina Charles for the second-most all-time and just one behind Maya Moore for the most in NCAA tournament history.
“You’re talking about one of the elite players in the country. I mean, she’s probably, in all likelihood, the best player in the country,” Mississippi State head coach Vic Schaefer said of Stewart. “You take away the three ball, she will take you off the bounce. You back off of her, she will make the three. If you put somebody that’s six-foot tall on her, she’s going to take you down there and post you up. I mean, it’s a nightmare. So, it’s hard to deal with a player like that. And then, oh, by the way, you know what? She plays pretty good defense.”
Stewart’s career at UConn has been filled with exceptional displays of her pure talent and athleticism. The three-straight blocks against Duquesne in this year’s second round of the tournament, her flying putback against Notre Dame earlier in the year and essentially any of her performances in her three national championship games are just a few examples.
However, Saturday against the Bulldogs was a little bit different. Instead of just one play, it was for an entire game. The mammoth two-handed blocks, the one-handed rebounds, the deep 3-pointers and follow-up layups were all on display.
Simply put, Stewart is playing her best basketball and is set on perfection, looking to lead the Huskies to an unprecedented fourth-straight national championship and cement her status are arguably one of the greatest and most accomplished collegiate athletes of all-time.
“Right now at this point in time, everything that she does, it hits me a little bit harder because I know I’m never going to see this again,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said of Stewart. “Now, again, I said that when Diana graduated, when Maya graduated, but I don’t see anybody like Stewie coming along anywhere in the near future. So, I don’t want to wait until it’s too late to appreciate it. I’m appreciating it right now as it happens.”