TAMPA — Recognized for the second year in a row as the Associated Press Player of the Year, Connecticut junior forward Breanna Stewart was roundly applauded by teammates during her acceptance speech Saturday when she put team goals ahead of personal accolades.
“Winning awards like these are nice,’’ said Stewart, who also won the WBCA’s Wade Trophy, awarded annually to the nation’s top women’s college player. “But the reason we’re here is to win a championship.’’
No one had to remind the Huskies of that point after they arrived at Amalie Arena in a rare convergence of four No. 1 seeds at the NCAA women’s Final Four. UConn will be gunning for its third consecutive national title and 10th in school history. The NCAA-record ninth capped a 40-0 season.
In Sunday’s first semifinal, Notre Dame (35-2) will face South Carolina (34-2), two teams that UConn throttled during the regular season by a combined 43 points.
The Huskies (36-1) will face Maryland (34-2), which earned an improbable repeat trip to the Final Four in its first season in the Big Ten despite losing five seniors and three-time All-American Alyssa Thomas.
“Obviously, we’re really thrilled to be one of the last four teams standing,’’ said Maryland coach Brenda Frese, who guided the Terrapins to the 2006 national championship in Boston. “When you talk about the preseason, I think the other three teams were probably predicted to be here.’’
While everyone will be looking to dethrone UConn, the Huskies will be narrowly focused on the only task at hand — winning another national championship.
“They come to Connecticut with that expectation in mind,’’ said UConn coach Geno Auriemma. “They either embrace that role and survive and actually thrive in that role of having to be the favorite and having to be on your game every night because everybody’s national championship is when they play you during the regular season.
“People beat us, they storm the court, they carry their coach off the court, we’ve seen it all. And they thrive on it and they embrace it because they want it.’’
No one, it seems, wants it more than Stewart, the Huskies’ leader in scoring (17.6 points per game) and rebounds (7.6). She’s also second on the team in assists (3.2) behind Moriah Jefferson (4.9).
“We know that everyone wants to beat us, and it comes with the territory,’’ said Stewart, who caused a bit of a stir when she showed up for her media obligation wearing a walking boot, but downplayed it as inflammation of the sesamoid bone in her left foot.
“We come to a program where we set the standard really high, and our goal is to get to the Final Four and to win championships,’’ Stewart said. “And we know that we always have a target on our backs.’’
That much hit home when UConn suffered its only loss Nov. 17, an 88-86 overtime setback at Stanford in the Huskies’ second game of the season.
“We try not to hold onto things for that long,’’ Auriemma said. “I might bring it up once in a while, but it hasn’t come up in a long time now. But I wish we would lose more. I really do.
“I wish we would lose on a regular basis like everybody else does so that when we don’t play well or the other team plays great and we get beat, it becomes kind of part of the college landscape at Connecticut. Hey, you know, ‘It’s all right, they’ll bounce back, they’ll be fine.’
“I think those things help you. And it did help us.’’
UConn won 35 in a row. The Huskies breezed in their first three NCAA Tournament games, beating St. Francis (N.Y.) by 56, Rutgers by 36, and Texas by 51 before rallying from a 44-43 halftime deficit to score a 21-point win over Dayton in the Albany Regional final last Monday.
With the Huskies two wins away from another title, none of the other top seeds want to be a party to UConn’s coronation.
“Obviously they share the basketball extremely well,’’ Frese said of UConn. “Within their offense, you know, they take great shots. And I think where they really hurt people is in their runs. If you’re not able to keep up with them from a scoring end, I think that’s when the game’s over.’’
And while Stewart has been surrounded this season by talented players — such as Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who owns the NCAA record with 393 3-pointers, and the hyper-quick Jefferson, a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award, which recognizes the nation’s top point guard — Stewart remains the fulcrum of UConn’s offense.
“They have a lot of — what, they have three All-Americans,’’ Frese said. “So when you talk about the weapons that they have on the court and then you finish with the Player of the Year with Stewart, she’s an extremely difficult matchup.’’