Breanna Stewart embracing UConn celebrity

TAMPA BAY, Fla. -- If you're a great player like Breanna Stewart signing with UConn, you must realize you'll have more on your plate than just trying to keep up the program's crazy-high standards.

You will be a celebrity in Connecticut. Not just for the time that you're playing, but forever after, too. Signing autographs, people adoring you, wanting to know your opinion about everything. Sounds cool, right?

"I wasn't particularly comfortable with it," said Rebecca Lobo, the signature star of UConn's first NCAA title team in 1995. "I loved playing at UConn, but I never expected -- because I had never experienced it before -- all that other stuff that comes with it.

"I spent my life as a really tall woman trying to blend in, and all of a sudden you're thrust out there. Not on campus so much -- there, you're still one of the kids, just a tall student. But when you're off campus, you can't do anything without a lot of attention. For Stewie, whenever she leaves campus, it's an all-eyes-on-me world. I don't know for sure, but my guess is early on she was like me and didn't really love it."

So we checked on that with Stewart, who enters this Women's Final Four having won the most outstanding player at this event the past two years. She leads the Huskies in scoring (17.6 ppg) and rebounding (7.6 rpg) and will be trying to match UConn legend Diana Taurasi's three NCAA titles. Stewart's Huskies face Maryland in Sunday's second semifinal at Amalie Arena.

"Whether I want the attention or not, I'm going to get it," Stewart said. "As a player, I want to be the best I can be. So if the attention comes with that, I'll take it."

That quote makes Stewart seem a bit on the dull side, which she most definitely is not. She has an ultra-dry sense of humor that results in one-liners that sometimes people miss entirely because they are so dry. She also is the type to randomly crack up everyone by being the "goofy Stewie," as senior teammate Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis put it.

"Sometimes she says things that just popped in her head, and she didn't really think about it before she said it," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "She likes to have a good time."

But Stewart also is a strong student, part of her overall insistence on doing everything well. She's gracious about accolades and compliments, without them seeming to affect her.

Stewart knows she's really, really good but sees no need to have to tell anybody that. It's not false modesty, it's just that her performances speak for themselves.

"Whether I want the attention or not, I'm going to get it. As a player, I want to be the best I can be. So if the attention comes with that, I'll take it." UConn star Breanna Stewart

"I think some people are naturally gifted in terms of handling themselves, and she's one of them," UConn associate coach Chris Dailey said. "It's not like her career has not had any bumps in the road. She's had to go through some things that were hard but were really good for her, and she continues to go through them. Each year, she handles anything she struggles with better."

Stewart has a bit of a sense of adventure, too, evidenced by how when she saw the "boat-bikes" on the water here in Tampa, she wanted to go for a ride.

"That was so much fun!" Stewart said. "[Friday] was when we had the most down time, and I was able to do that with Morgan [Tuck] and my family. We're in these environments to have fun; we know the line between when you're supposed to have fun and when you need to be serious.

"It was cool. I didn't realize it was going to be that steady. I thought I was going to maybe fall in the water, but I didn't do that. It's just like riding a bike -- you pedal, and it takes you where you want to go."

Stewart, so far in her career, has been able to take the Huskies everywhere they've wanted to go. Yes, she had a few rough games her freshman year playing for Geno Auriemma when she had to get used to basketball being maybe not quite as easy for her as it previously had been. But once the 2013 NCAA tournament started, Stewart was 100 percent "on."

Stewart was an unstoppable force at the Final Four in New Orleans in 2013, and it was the same last year in Nashville. Now she's here in Tampa Bay to do what she does especially well: Take over when the most is on the line.

"The moments that bring out the best competitor in me are the biggest moments," Stewart said. "As a basketball player, you want to play on the biggest stage. You want to be in a game with a sold-out crowd where the atmosphere is high, because that's what's fun."

When you play at UConn, though, in some ways the stage lights stay on all the time. The UConn "stars club" really goes back to Lobo and Jennifer Rizzotti in the program-changing 1995 season when the Huskies won their first NCAA title. That's when we first started hearing funny stories about obsessed Huskies fans, like one who saw Lobo getting a haircut in a salon and raced in to grab some hair off the floor.

UConn's continued success has spawned several stars in the two decades since, and they've all had to adapt to what that means.

"You realize that the fan base is what makes Connecticut special, and you embrace and enjoy it," said Sue Bird, whose Huskies teams won titles in 2000 and 2002. "I don't think it's too stressful; obviously, someone like Breanna stands out a little more because of her height. I generally blend.

"But whether you're at a camp and it's 100 kids surrounding you, or you're at the store and it's a couple of adults, it doesn't bother me. I think Stewie is a genuinely nice person and that she's similar in that way."

UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph was the most outstanding player in the Final Four in 2000. She joked that as a player, it was easier for her to go unrecognized if she didn't have her hair in her trademark ponytail.

But she understood that carrying the UConn trademark, if you will, was an all-the-time thing.

"One of the things that coach Auriemma always talked about was how when the program first started, they didn't have a lot of fans," Ralph said of UConn in the 1980s. "They built this fan base over time, and players are real people to our fans. They care about us, and they know us."

Ralph thinks Stewart might initially have been a little more introverted and needed some time to adjust to how bright the spotlight was in Storrs. But some athletes really are destined to be the ones who always are the center of the conversation. It's not just because of Stewart's talent, but that she's always been able to clear the bar no matter how high it's raised.

"It's been a part of me, and it's grown as I've become more and more of a basketball player," Stewart said. "You play for these moments where everything is on the line."

Auriemma thinks Stewart probably had the most "hype" of any of his incoming standouts, even more than Taurasi in 2000 or Maya Moore in 2007. Some people were calling the 6-foot-4 multidimensional Stewart the best Huskies player ever before she had even played a college game.

"She's got to be 'Breanna Stewart!' every night," Auriemma said. "She doesn't really have that edge that Dee [Taurasi] had. Nobody has that. She's much more laid-back, more easy-going. But that edge comes out at NCAA [tournament] time."

Just how much? Well, tune in Sunday and you'll see. Stewart has yet to come up "small" when the Huskies are counting on her being huge.

"Sometimes you think a kid's going to be 'it' and they're not," Auriemma said. "Stewie kind of knew she had it, and then all she needed was a stage to prove it. And she's done it.

"I've coached some great ones. And she's as good as anybody I've ever coached when big moments come."

Stewart still has a chance for two more NCAA titles but is already high on the Huskies' all-time pantheon. And as Lobo said, that lasts a lifetime in Connecticut.

"It's awesome," Stewart said. "That's the position I want to be in because that means I'm being successful as a player, and it comes with the territory."