Unfortunately, much of the attention on the NCAA tournament this year remains on the men's basketball teams. While there are many talented players and unexpected upsets happening with the men's teams, this nearly one-sided focus tends to completely leave out the talented players who represent the various women's college basketball teams. Take the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, for example: Three of its players were announced as 2016 Wade Trophy finalists, an award that goes to the nation's most outstanding NCAA Division I women's basketball player. Similarly, two of UConn's players were nominated for the Naismith Trophy, which recognizes the nation's most outstanding women's basketball player. Because of her spot on both of these finalists lists, as well as being in the middle of her best season yet, UConn's Breanna Stewart is an amazing NCAA player to keep your eye on throughout the tournament.
Stewart was born and raised in Syracuse, New York, where she lived for most of her life before she began traveling to play for the USA women's basketball team at age 14. In a Sports Illustrated interview, her father, Brian, recalled the time as a tough transition for their family, but one that has led to her success today. Stewart was the youngest member of the USA basketball team and she was only the second high school student to ever compete for the USA in the Pan Am Games basketball competition. She started all four games with USA basketball and was the fifth-highest scorer among all the participants in the eight-nation field.
Now, as a senior at UConn, Stewart has had her best season yet. As the UConn Huskies enter the Sweet 16, they are undefeated and on a 71-game winning streak. Winning the NCAA tournament would be the team's fourth consecutive national championship and Stewart's second undefeated season. UConn would be the first Division I women's team to win four straight national championships, and if they pull it off, Stewart will make history for being the only woman basketball member to play on the winning team all four years.
Even if the Huskies take an unexpected loss during the tournament, Stewart has had an impressive career. The 6-foot-4 forward is a three-time Final Four Most Outstanding Player (MOP) — Stewart is the first woman to accomplish this and only the fourth freshman in history to receive the MOP award.
Stewart has made a name for herself on the court; coaches and fans recognize her as a team player who is known for making unexpected plays. "[My coach] always talks to me about making ‘wow’ plays, plays that people don’t make, that people don’t normally see,” Stewart told the New York Times. Stewart has only lost five games total in her entire college career; four of them were during her freshman year.
Growing up in Syracuse, Stewart's father exposed her to men's basketball at a young age. It wasn't until she was nine or 10 that she discovered the UConn Huskies women's team, which just so happened to be a time with unprecedented women players breaking records and setting trends. “When you fall in love with a sport, that’s all you want to do, watch other teams play,” Stewart told the New York Times.
Stewart is virtually great at everything when it comes to basketball, which has gotten her compared to Kevin Durant since she stepped on the UConn team. The Sports Illustrated profile of Stewart, in which she is described as "the Kevin Durant of women's game," touted her accomplishments and her ability to excel in every area on the court:
What makes Stewart special isn't difficult to quantify -- she has averaged 19.7 points this season and scored 1,000 in just 63 games, the second fastest to reach that mark in school history. But there's something else: Stewart is a new prototype for women's hoops.
It's the consistency of Stewart's improvements that make her an amazing NCAA player to keep your eye on during this tournament. She became a near-instant star player when she began as a teenager, and her short time at UConn has only solidified her prowess on the court. FiveThirtyEight ran an analysis on the accuracy of Stewart's shots from different points on the court — close, midrange, and long shots — and found that she has improved consistently and significantly each year. Most notably, Stewart has a 7 percent increase in accuracy for her three-point shots since 2013, an improvement that could easily carry the Huskies to their fourth consecutive national championship this tournament.
But it doesn't stop there: FiveThirtyEight found that Stewart has improved in every area (assists, blocks, rebounds, and steals). After the NCAA tournament, and a hopeful win for Stewart's final season as a member of the UConn Huskies women's team, she will likely be off to the WNBA where she will assuredly continue to make headlines. But for now, we can sit back and enjoy the next few games of the tournament when Stewart gives it her all in her last games of an incredible college basketball career.