STORRS -- The elite players that join the UConn women's basketball team tend to say the same thing. Playing in big games against the best teams in the country is one of the reasons why they chose to play for the Huskies.
Star freshman Breanna Stewart is no different. Tonight's game against fourth-ranked and unbeaten Duke at Gampel Pavilion (7; ESPN2) is another opportunity to shine in front of a national audience. It will be the third time this season that No. 3 UConn will be facing a Top 5 opponent. And, for as easy as Stewart has made it appear many times, she is still looking to break out against an elite foe.
Stewart is averaging 9.5 points on 29.2 percent shooting from the field (7-of-24) in a win at then-No. 1 Stanford Dec. 29 and a loss to then-No. 5 Notre Dame Jan. 5. She is not putting any added pressure on herself tonight, but the experience she gained most recently against the Irish is fresh in her mind.
"I think there was definitely a lot of things to learn from the Notre Dame game,'' said Stewart, who finished with 10 points (5-of-17 FG) in the game. "And it was just like shot selection, taking shots that are easier to make and just really focusing on keeping myself moving. My expectations of myself (tonight) are just to come out, make sure I'm focused and prepared, and just play basketball.'' Stewart is averaging 15.8 points on 56.6 percent shooting in 13 games against non-Top 5 teams this season for UConn (16-1). Her lack of success defines how difficult it can be for younger players to thrive when facing these types of opponents.
UConn sophomore forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis had six points (2-of-10 FG) in a win at Duke last season. Blue Devils' sophomore center Elizabeth Williams totaled 10 points (3-of-15) in the same game. Both were among the top freshmen in the country a year ago.
In facing Duke (16-0) tonight, UConn coach Geno Auriemma knows that Stewart needs to perform better than she did against Notre Dame.
"If we want to win, yeah,'' Auriemma said. "I think whichever team gets their best post play is going to win. And, obviously, Stewie's a big part of that. She got 15 shots (Saturday) and they were pretty decent shots. I think in the Notre Dame game, she might have gotten (17) shots but they weren't all great shots. So as long as we keep getting her good shots I feel good about it.'' Along with Mosqueda-Lewis (17.1) and junior center Stefanie Dolson (13.8), Stewart (14.9) is part of UConn's new Big Three. They combined for 70 points in Saturday's win over Syracuse and have accounted for 54.5 percent of the team's scoring this season.
Duke, which is facing its first Top 5 opponent this season, counters with its own high scoring trio of Williams (15.8) and junior guards Chelsea Gray (14.0) and Tricia Liston (12.4). They have accounted for 53.4 percent of the scoring for the Blue Devils.
Factoring in junior wing Haley Peters (12.1), the total jumps to 68.7 percent of Duke's scoring.
"They're really good,'' Auriemma said. "Elizabeth Williams is great. Chelsea Gray is a really, really good guard and Tricia Liston's become somebody that they can count on. And maybe between her and Peters, the two of them have given them a pretty good wing player. So just that alone makes them really, really good.'' The Blue Devils again enter Gampel Pavilion as the lone remaining unbeaten team in Division I. They were 20-0 on Jan. 31, 2011 when they were dealt an 87-51 loss.
The Huskies have won five straight games against Duke since a 63-61 loss in overtime in the NCAA regional final in Bridgeport March 28, 2006. They have won the last four games by an average of 29.2 points.
"I'm sure what's happened the last couple years that we played them, I'm sure it's on their mind a little bit,'' Auriemma said. "I think the last time they came to Gampel wasn't really a fun trip for them. I'm sure they're coming to make sure it's not going to be like that at all. I know (tonight's) going to be very, very difficult for us. Duke is not placing much stock in what happened in the past. They understand that it comes down the execution at both ends."
Blue Devils coach Joanne P. McCallie said what is most important is that her team continues to learn at this point in the season.
"Hopefully, we'll see them again, so it's kind of like a dress rehearsal to try to learn and grow,'' McCallie said. "They're an excellent opponent. There's nothing else to say about that."
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