Ever the MVP, Breanna Stewart steps up to lift U.S. women to semifinals

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Friday, September 28, 2018

There have been some seasons when the WNBA MVP award clearly belonged to one person, even without a deep dive into statistical comparisons. But the past several years, it has been more a case of a player reaching premium efficiency to claim the honor among strong candidates.

This season, that player was Seattle's Breanna Stewart. She has carried that momentum right into her pivotal role with the United States at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup. Stewart leads the Americans in scoring at 17.0 points per game, and she projects the kind of confidence that the team needed in Friday's quarterfinals.

By score alone -- the U.S. women beat Nigeria 71-40 and now face Belgium in Saturday's semifinals (ESPNews, 12:30 p.m. ET) in Tenerife, Spain -- you wouldn't think the Americans required any confidence boost. But Team USA started poorly Friday. It almost looked as if the ball was coated in grease, the way both teams couldn't hang onto it and couldn't shoot accurately.

Nigeria led 17-9 after the first quarter, and was up 21-15 with 5 minutes, 13 seconds left in the second. The Nigerians were disrupting the Americans' rhythm (what there was of it) with high energy and physical play. There wasn't a real worry that the Americans would lose at that point. But there was concern that they were playing sloppily and rushed, traits they need to avoid if they hope to defend their title.

Then Stewart was reinserted into the game, and quickly nailed a jump shot that made the net snap. It was just one basket, but it was such a sweet-looking shot, it was like sending a message: "OK, we're getting back on track now."

By halftime, the Americans led 27-23, and in the third quarter it was clear they had weathered the storm and worn down their opponent. This is definitely still a tournament to remember and be proud of for the Nigerians, but they scored just 17 points in the second half, five in the fourth quarter.

Stewart finished with a game-high 19 points, going 7-of-8 from the field with three rebounds and five assists.

"Stewie's been tremendous for us. So Stewie's someone we need on the floor a lot," USA coach Dawn Staley said. "I think she played the longest stretch of any player throughout the game, but that was out of necessity."

This is the role Stewart wants, because that's her mentality. Over the years, as much as Team USA has been stocked to the roof with talent, certain players just always seem to have that extra something that lifts even their fellow superstars.

Sue Bird brings that steadying force at point guard, of course. But when the ball just needs to go in the basket, pronto, to restore order, the Americans have had some who have really excelled.

Lisa Leslie was that player for several years. It's not a coincidence that the last time the Americans lost internationally, to Russia in the 2006 World Cup semifinals, Leslie (still an important part of the USA Basketball program back then) wasn't at that tournament because she needed to deal with a family emergency. The Americans struggled with their shooting in that game, and Leslie wasn't there to get a few so-called "easy" baskets to perk up everyone else.

Maya Moore also has been that person, but she is resting and not at this event. Diana Taurasi has done it, too, but she was in foul trouble early Friday and scored just two points on 1-of-5 shooting.

A'ja Wilson, the WNBA rookie of the year, already looks capable of being that go-to player even this early in her senior national-team career. She had 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting Friday. And Stewart has firmly established herself as that type of player. Considering Wilson just turned 22 and Stewart 24, both in August, that's a really good feeling for the United States.

Staley said after Friday's game she traces Stewart's preparation for this national-team role back to the 2014 World Cup, when Stewart was just a rising junior at UConn. She didn't play much for Team USA then, taking just eight shots total. But she watched and learned. She was in a bigger role by the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, averaging 8.1 points per game. And now she's at the top of the totem.

"You have to prep for that," Staley said. "You can't just think you can come in and have the type of impact that she's having. You have to mentally and physically and spiritually prepare for that, and she didn't take that time lightly."

The Americans will need that as they face Belgium, which beat France 86-65 Friday following a group-play victory over Spain. And if the matchup that's probably already buzzing in a lot of minds -- USA vs. Australia -- happens in the final, Stewart will need to be at her best, too. Because the Aussies, who crushed China 83-42 Friday, have looked great so far.

But like a one-time promising understudy who very quickly found her way to the marquee's brightest lights, Stewart has been on the ascent and is still rising.