HARTFORD, Conn. – Breanna Stewart laced up her sneakers that were dedicated to Kobe Bryant and his daughter and took the court for her first basketball game in nine months after rupturing her right Achilles tendon.
The Seattle Storm standout, who was the most valuable player in the WNBA regular season and Finals in 2018, liked the results.
“The first step was getting out there and playing, Obviously there was going to be rust, but I was pretty happy,” Stewart said after the U.S. women’s national team beat No. 4 Connecticut 79-64 on Monday night in an exhibition game. “The next step is to see how the leg feels in the morning and then at the next practice.”
Stewart scored three points in 17 minutes, making her first shot of the game and missing the other six. She, like many of the U.S. players, played with a heavy heart because of the death of Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who were killed in a helicopter crash Sunday in California.
Stewart had their names, along with other victims of the crash, on her shoes and the Huskies placed a jersey for Gianna on their bench at the XL Center.
The Bryants had become friends with UConn coach Geno Auriemma and many of the program’s former players — including the 25-year-old Stewart, who said Bryant was one of the first people to reach out to her when she got hurt playing in Europe in April.
“He knew what I was going through and wanted to assure me that I’d be OK,” she said.
UConn had flowers on its bench in front of a No. 2 jersey for Gianna, who Kobe had said was “hellbent” on attending the school and playing for the team.
Stewart connected on her first shot — a three-pointer from the wing.
Stewart led UConn to four NCAA titles and was voted most outstanding player of the Final Four each time.
“I’m happy she played. Looked pretty good,” Auriemma said. “Not the same Stewie yet, but she will be. Got in the lane and made her first three. She makes everything look so easy. There’s a little gingerness about her. She didn’t have the come out of nowhere and do things that make you go ‘wow.’ She’s been looking forward to this for a long time. She got to actually play.”
The United States, which lost an exhibition game to Oregon on Nov. 9, scored the first seven points and led 22-11 after one quarter.
“First timeout I called, I thought we were going to get shut out. I was worried we wouldn’t score,” Auriemma said.
UConn rallied in the second quarter and the score was tied at 31 at the half. The Huskies led 51-47 before the U.S. team scored the final five points of the third quarter.
UConn led 56-54 early in the fourth quarter before former Washington Huskies guard Kelsey Plum scored eight straight points in a 10-0 run for the U.S. to give the national team a cushion — its first since the first quarter.
The U.S. plays at Louisville on Sunday in a final exhibition game before playing in an Olympic qualifying tournament in Serbia. The Americans have already locked up a berth in Tokyo by winning the FIBA World Cup in 2018.