It's three titles for UConn's Stewart -- and counting

TAMPA, Fla. -- It wasn't the same kind of Breanna Stewart-takes-over-the-world performance we saw in the past two national championship games. In fact, Stewart was downright contrite Tuesday about winning most outstanding player in the Women's Final Four for a record third time. Stewart said her teammate Moriah Jefferson deserved it.

"I told her we could share it," Stewart said.

So we can add that heartfelt sentiment to Stewart's "assist" total. But let's give her credit: Even though she scored just eight points on 4-of-8 shooting, she still found big ways to impact Tuesday's 63-53 UConn victory over Notre Dame in the NCAA final.

Stewart, who averaged 17.6 points this season, had 15 rebounds -- one short of her career high -- and added four blocked shots in 39 minutes of play.

"If I can help through scoring, I'll do that," said Stewart, who joined the likes of Chamique Holdsclaw and Diana Taurasi as three-time champions. "But I want to make sure I'm having an impact in other ways -- whether it's rebounding or blocking shots, or just making the offense think about where I am defensively."

It wasn't the Stewie show quite like the 23-point, nine-rebound effort she had in UConn's victory over Louisville in the 2013 NCAA final. Or the 21 and nine she had last year in beating Notre Dame for the championship.

Still, considering she painfully rolled her ankle with about eight minutes left in the first half -- yet still missed just one minute of game action -- this effort will still go down in the Stewart chronicles as memorable. She showed toughness and resolve on a night when she faced a physical hurdle that could have affected her.

"It did hurt, and I haven't seen it. I'm sure it looked gross," Stewart said of the video of the ankle turn. "But it's the national championship game. My team is counting on me. I got taped as quickly as I could and got back in the game. I'm sure it will hurt tomorrow, but the season's over now."

And her junior season ended just as Stewart hoped it would back when, as a teenager signing with UConn, she said her goal was to win four national championships. She's three-quarters of the way there, and the tears she shed after Tuesday's game were of pride, happiness, relief and affection for her teammates.

Stewart wasn't expecting to be so overcome with emotion, but it was proof that Tuesday's title was anything but taken for granted by the 38-1 Huskies. Yes, the program has five perfect seasons and three others with just one loss, including this year. But there is a price to pay in practice and preparation in order to get all that winning.

"We make it look easier than it is," Stewart said. "The fact that we won three championships in a row is unreal. But it comes with a lot of hard work. We don't just step on the court and get the trophy. We have to get better. Each year, it seems there is someone else trying to test us and push us to our breaking point. We use our offseason to get better after we enjoy our national championship."

This is the 10th time the UConn program has had that trophy to enjoy, and there have been many stars and role players who've worked together to make all that happen over the past two decades. Coach Geno Auriemma has always given credit to every young woman who has put on the UConn jersey and helped him get to this milestone in championships. But Stewie is something special, and he definitely has loved having her around.

"We make it look easier than it is. The fact that we won three championships in a row is unreal. But it comes with a lot of hard work." Breanna Stewart

"She believes in herself so much that she thinks she was born for these moments," Auriemma said. "I don't even know that tonight she played a great game, but she does so many things for us.

"I told her [that] after the game, when she was kind of choked up. She wasn't really happy with the way she played. And I said, 'Sometimes it's the little things that matter. A blocked shot here or there. Another rebound over here. It's not always about getting 30 or shooting 10-for-15 every night.'"

All true, and that ability to impact the game even on less-than-outstanding nights is part of what makes great players great. No one in women's basketball had ever been named the most outstanding player of the Final Four three times before Tuesday, and now Stewart has a chance to earn four.

Stewart's ascendency to being the consensus national player of the year for the past two seasons has not been without a few little dramas. We say "little" because they never really amounted to much more than normal growing pains. She had some rough stretches during her freshman season while she was adjusting to the demands of not just college games, but also practices.

"She's learned to embrace how hard we make practice to help make the games easier," UConn assistant coach Chris Dailey said. "When she started here, she would try to make practice easy, which made the games more difficult. I think now she values playing at a high level, intensity-wise, for longer stretches in practice and being responsible for how our team operates."

This season, Stewart played just five minutes in a win over Memphis on Feb. 7, which was a message from Auriemma to essentially tell her not to let up on her effort, even in blowout victories. Not coincidentally, that "punishment" came right before the Huskies' game against South Carolina, which was then ranked No. 1.

Stewart had 22 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots in an 87-62 victory over the Gamecocks that put the Huskies back in the top spot of the rankings. Which is where they stayed -- all the way until the end of the season Tuesday. And No. 1 is where UConn will start next season, when Stewart will be a senior favored to again win the national championship.

"Every time you experience it, you want to enjoy it like you've never done it before," Stewart said. "I came here because I wanted to become the best player I can be and help my team win championships. To set my goals really high is something I've always done, but it's a lot easier to say it than do it. I'm pretty sure when I said it, I got a lot of looks like it wasn't going to happen. But I'm close."