How can Notre Dame defend UConn star Breanna Stewart?

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. – C’mon coach, throw us a bone.

Just give us a hint; a little morsel; a nugget of information that might give us an idea of how the Notre Dame women’s basketball team plans on putting the clamps on Breanna Stewart.

How Irish coach Muffet McGraw chooses to defend the 6-foot-4 national player of the year will weigh heavily into how her team might fare against Connecticut Tuesday night in the NCAA championship game.

Monday she was quite close to the vest.

“Well, (Stewart) is a difficult matchup because of her size and her ability to play on the perimeter and on the inside,” McGraw said. “We've got a couple of ideas that we're going to try.”

And … One or two of those ideas might be…?”

No way. Not a peep.

“I don't think anybody's been very successful with her this year,” said McGraw. “She didn't have a great game against us last time (15 points, nine rebounds in an 18-point UConn win Dec. 6), but I would say that was more her than our defense.”

Stewie, as the junior is affectionately called by her coach, Geno Auriemma, averages 17.8 points and 7.6 rebounds, while hitting 54 percent of her shots. She’s a weapon on the perimeter, but is nearly impossible to stop inside.

An amazing athlete, she has the body of a post and the skills of a guard.

Which is why she’s clearly the cream of the national crop.

“The biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is to the physical play,” Stewart said of defenses that have bothered her. “I have to be ready for the double-team, and sometimes the triple-team, and be able to calmly get the ball to someone else.”

OK, McGraw has her options.

Put Jewell Loyd, an amazing 5-10 athlete, on her and hope for help. Loyd has the quickness and athleticism to hang with Stewart, but gives up six inches.

“Size isn’t a factor for me,” said Loyd. “I’ve gone against (6-5 WNBA star) Elena Delle Donne in the offseason. Seven-foot, 6-10, playing with guys; my brother’s friends. You just have to understand the mindset.

“Team defense will be important against Breanna. Our goal will be to make it difficult for her. We’re not going to stop her.

“I played with (Breanna) Stewart (on the national team). We all know her and what she’s like. There’s no intimidation at all. We’ve played them so much in the past that it really doesn’t intimidate us. There’s no definite answer on how to play her. She’s so gifted offensively, inside and out. There’s no answer to guarding her. You just have to make her take tough shots and box her out because she’s long and lanky. As for intimidation, I really don’t think there is any.”

Then there’s 6-3 freshman Brianna Turner. She has the size. She may have the athleticism. But she would be lacking a bit in speed and the savvy that comes with being a junior.

That’s a recipe for foul trouble, which becomes a regular issue with Turner even without a talent like Stewart.

“I need to be a defensive presence,” Turner said.

Taya Reimer, at 6-3, went toe-to-toe with Stewart and Stefanie Dolson in last year’s championship game. The two combined for 38 points in the 21-point UConn victory.

She has the size and savvy, but hardly the speed and athleticism.

“(Stewart’s) such a great player,” Reimer said. “She has the ability to elevate over people for a shot. Our goal is to try to contain her, then limit her shots. She’s going to get her shots. We just have to cut down their offensive rebounding.”

Then there’s 6-2 freshman Kathryn Westbeld, who likely will be asked to tag team on her occasionally.

“She’s very long,” Westbeld said of Stewart. “She’s a really good player. We’ve gotta keep her out and limit her touches.

“We have enough diversity on our team where it won’t be too much of a problem. We should be alright.”

OK. No problem. Huh?

Nothing easy about it.

Of course, there are the other four starters – and 6-5 reserve Natalie Butler – who average in double figures.

Stewart is just one of the issues the Irish will have to face Tuesday night.

It’s probably, though, the best place to start.

Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart (30) plays offense Saturday, December 6, 2014, during the Connecticut-Notre Dame women's basketball game at Purcell Pavilion in South Bend. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)