UConn's Stewart presents a challenge to Notre Dame unlike any other

South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Muffet McGraw didn’t hesitate to start her answer with Breanna Stewart.

Asked about the matchup problems Connecticut presents for Notre Dame, the Irish head coach pointed first at the 6-foot-4 sophomore forward with the freakish wingspan and this year’s Associated Press national player of the year.

The Irish have vanquished an All-American in the last two NCAA Tournament wins this month in Baylor guard Odyssey Sims and Maryland forward Alyssa Thomas. Neither presented quite the same challenges as Stewart.

She’s a forward that slates second on UConn’s team in rebounding, can launch jumpers from behind the 3-point arc and forces her will on opponents in the form of 19.4 points per game. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma has likened Stewart to Kevin Durant, and her wingspan reportedly reaches seven feet.

“I don't know that you can stop her,” McGraw said. “I don't think you can. I think she's just a great player who — she can score in so many different ways. She has so many more ways she can beat you at different times during the game. We have to hope that she doesn't go off for her career high; but, as far as stopping her, I'm not sure that's possible.”

If someone at Notre Dame has the answer, they’re not ready to share it before Tuesday’s game. Finding any semblance of an answer will likely require a number of defensive looks for the Irish.

“I think that you have to try different things for sure,” McGraw said. “I don't think you'll have one person for 40 minutes that's able to stay in the game and guard her that long. I think we're going to have to try a couple of different plans.”

The last time these two played, Stewart scored 29 points in last year’s Final Four to end Notre Dame’s season. Her performance propelled her to Most Outstanding Player honors as a freshman after another 23 points in the championship win over Louisville.

At times, Jewell Loyd tried to defend Stewart. She hopes to draw from that experience in order to disrupt Stewart on Tuesday.

“We know that we actually have to guard her from the 3,” Loyd said. “We can't give her open looks, because she'll pull it. We have to make sure we always have a hand in her face and make her a little bothered by our defense."

Loyd’s 5-10 frame leaves her at a disadvantage, but she won’t be out there alone. Relying on the five-man unit to defend Stewart and the Huskies will be the same requirement needed to slow a player such as Maryland’s Thomas.

“I'm going to attack her mental game,” Loyd said. “It's a team defense effort. So, for me, it's always trying to be around her and be like a fly that won't go away. That's kind of my job. That's the same attack I had on Thomas — to be a pest and be annoying."

Even when Notre Dame last beat UConn in the 2013 Big East tournament, Stewart hit 50 percent of her shots for 16 points. But she was 0-of-4 from 3 and grabbed only two rebounds.

"We know she's going to get her shots,” said Irish guard Kayla McBride. “We know she's going to be Breanna Stewart. How can we, I don't know, limit her as much as possible and limit everybody else around her? Try to exploit her tendencies, I guess, and try to get into our game.”

Notre Dame’s game has been perfection so far this season. Tough tasks have been mastered repeatedly. Keeping Stewart in check may be the toughest of all — only fitting with a national championship on the line.

“It's definitely going to be a challenge for us,” said Notre Dame forward Taya Reimer. “But we've faced a lot of challenges this year and we've overcome those, so we're definitely going to try to do that (Tuesday).”

Tyler James: 574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Connecticut's Breanna Stewart was named Associated Press Player of the Year last week. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)