How UConn senior Breanna Stewart makes it all look so easy

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Breanna Stewart has got it all down now. In a way that's both friendly and business-like, she anticipates the media's questions before they're asked, and then answers in complete and polished sentences. She wears the cloak of "best player in women's college basketball" not just comfortably, but even effortlessly.

Surely, though, it's not that easy. Coach Geno Auriemma's UConn "system" has produced 10 NCAA championships and a group of elite players whose personal accomplishments have become a part of basketball lore.

But this, too, is one of the program's hallmarks: The superstars shine very brightly without seeming to bask in their own limelight. (Or at least not too much. Diana Taurasi might have done a little basking, but not at the expense of her team's goals or her own growth.)

Stewart exhibits no sense of self-importance, and yet a firm sense of self-confidence that is not off-putting. She's like the Broadway star who knows just how to modulate her voice to reach the entire theater without ever sounding like she's attempting to steal the show.

"What I want people to think when they see me as a player is someone who is hungry to get better, and also is humble," said Stewart, espnW's preseason player of the year. "I know what I'm good at; I have a lot of confidence in myself on the court. But I don't want to make it seem like I'm being arrogant or overly cocky, because that's just not who I am."

Stewart has done, so far, exactly what she set out to do: win a national championship each year of college. She has one season left. And if she and the Huskies win their fourth consecutive title, she'll have a little something over all the previous legends of the program, none of whom did that.

Auriemma has presided over the Huskies since 1985, and has observed what goes into the make-up of every signature player who has left her indelible mark on UConn. They all share some similar qualities, despite the generational differences that are bound to exist over a 30-year period.

"You could tell at a young age that Stewie had a quality that allowed her to function at the biggest moments," said Auriemma, who opens the season next Monday at No. 6 Ohio State. "There's a lot of players that are great, but when the moment needs them to be better than great, they don't have it in them. She has always been the best player on the floor, but when the moment calls for her to be more than that, she's never afraid of it."

So is that something that has to come naturally, or can it be developed in players?

"Are they born like that? I think they have it in them," Auriemma said. "Then they cultivate it a little more each year they play. Then we try to tap into that. That sense of, 'You're at Connecticut now, and you're supposed to do great things and take advantage of the moments.'

"We've been fortunate that a lot of times, that has happened. There have been years where it doesn't. But the iconic players that we've had, for sure, all have that."

Joining the icons

It's impossible for a player like Stewart to escape comparisons to her UConn predecessors, in particular Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore, who have gone on to so much WNBA and international success.

But Stewart never appears at all bothered by that; in fact, the sports fan in her understands that is just part of the gig: greats are compared to other greats.

"We all had our own challenges, behind the scenes or in front of the cameras," Moore said of being the Huskies' centerpiece player. "All of us did a lot of growing. It's a hard place to play, because you're forced to take ownership of your mistakes. The culture there is you really have to own it."

That mentality has carried over for Stewart when she has played on the U.S. national team with the likes of Taurasi and Moore, including in the 2014 world championship. Stewart has been treated essentially like an equal, despite having just turned 21 this August.

"I don't remember getting teased because I was the youngest one," Stewart said of her USA Basketball experiences. "Because of how I play and what I've done to make my game respectable, they look at me as one of them.

"It's great, because they are still at a whole other level that I haven't gotten to yet. But the fact is, they treat me the same as anyone else. Nothing to make me feel bad or uncomfortable, or that I didn't belong."

Her ability demands that kind of respect, but her personality also makes it easy for veterans to give it to her. She is not "goofy" in the way some prodigies are, but she also doesn't take herself so seriously that anyone would feel the need to take her down a peg.

Talent recognizes talent, and maturity recognizes maturity. At 6 feet, 4 inches with guard and post skills, Stewart is a different mold of player than either Taurasi or Moore. Taurasi's greatness is rooted in how much she controls the game with the ball in her hands, while for Moore it's that she can finish both well-executed and busted plays with such a variety of scoring weapons.

Stewart is the proverbial matchup nightmare, but she's actually still pretty early into the process of figuring out all she can do. During recent overseas training with the national team, Stewart was doing a one-on-one drill where she consistently was able to launch her 3-point shot no matter how tough the professional defense on her. Yet Auriemma wasn't all that impressed.

"He said, 'We already know you can do that, but now try to beat that player off the dribble. You're playing a really good defender, see if you can do it differently,'" Stewart said.

"As a player, once you see yourself doing that, it's like, 'Wow, I have these other options.'"

Which is a frightening thought to the players who already don't have a prayer of effectively defending Stewart.

"It's what she's able to do at her size," said Maryland coach Brenda Frese, whose Terps endured a 25-point, eight-rebound, four-block performance by Stewart in the national semifinals last season. "She can post you up and shoot the 3, so who do you put on her? Her size is going to allow her to elevate. But can a post player chase her through stagger screens and defend against the 3? We all struggle to have that matchup."

One more mission at UConn

These last months in college for Stewart will go by quickly. Moore knows that.

"I've been in her shoes, although with one less championship at this point, heading into my senior year," Moore said. "She's had to be an adult quickly, since probably her freshman year, as far as having a lot of attention and outside pressure. Of course, she's going to have pressure and expectations from herself, too.

"But also trying to balance social life, school life, basketball life. Being a person while trying to accomplish some hard things. You develop some really high-level focus."

Stewart can't go anywhere in the state of Connecticut anonymously. Although, she jokes that some other students seem a little surprised to see her hoofing it around campus in Storrs.

"It's funny because sometimes when I'm walking to class, people are giving me this look like they think I don't go to class," Stewart said, chuckling. "I mean, of course I go to class.

"I think sometimes people in class with me are kind of intimidated at first, but as the year goes on, they open up. I talk, they talk; we all talk to each other. And they realize I'm just a normal person."

Like most later millennials, Stewart binge-watches TV shows as one outlet to relax. Last season, "Grey's Anatomy" was the binge of choice for the UConn team.

This season, some of the Huskies, including Stewart, have dived into "American Horror Story." Stewart said they had completed only the first season, the ghost-filled "Murder House." And while she liked it, "I was really confused during some of the episodes, because I was having a hard time figuring out if the person was dead or alive. It was an addicting show, though."

Earlier this year, Stewart -- who also loves to watch sports when her schedule allows -- followed Serena Williams' quest to complete tennis' Grand Slam. Williams fell agonizingly short in the U.S. Open semifinals.

"That's the pressure we face as elite athletes. You can't just play well. You can't lose to someone you're not supposed to," Stewart said. "Serena is supposed to beat everybody, and that's the pressure she has because of what her tennis career has been. Yeah, I guess it's unfortunate at times. But I doubt she'd want it any other way."

Much like Stewart herself, of course, as she begins the road toward one last national championship. Anything short of another trophy would seem, at least for a time, disastrous to Stewart. Never mind that she had won three NCAA titles and a world championship gold medal by age 20, which is a hellacious haul.

There is still another title that, in her mind, she simply must win. She also wouldn't want it any other way.

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