HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Breanna Stewart laced up her sneakers that were dedicated to Kobe Bryant and his daughter and took the court for her first game in nine months after rupturing her right Achilles tendon.
She liked the results.
“The first step was getting out there and playing, Obviously there was going to be rust, but I was pretty happy,” she said after the U.S. women’s national team beat No. 4 UConn 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, hitting her first shot of the game. 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 died in a helicopter crash Sunday,
She had their names along with other victims of the crash on her shoes and the Huskies hung a jersey for Gianna on their bench at the XL Center.
The Bryants had become friends with coach Geno Auriemma and many of the former UConn players, including Stewart, who said Bryant was one of the first people to reach out to her when she got hurt 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. The coaching staffs wore gold and purple ribbons.
The teams huddled together at midcour t before the tip for a 24-second moment of silence. After the tip, the U.S. took an 8-second backcourt violation and then the Huskies let the 24-second shot clock expire. Those were Kobe Bryant’s numbers in the pros.
Then the game got back to normal with Stewart hitting her first shot — a 3-pointer from the wing. It was her only basket of the game.
“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 3. 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 U.S., which lost an exhibition game to Oregon on Nov. 9, scored the first seven points and led 22-11 after one.
“First timeout I called I thought we were going to get shut out. I was worried we wouldn’t score,” Auriemma quipped. “You know, now I know what it felt like when we had certain teams and we played against other teams. … We used to do that to teams. Now we were on the other end of that.”
UConn rallied in the second quarter and the game 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.
The Huskies led 56-54 early in the fourth quarter before Kelsey Plum scored eight straight points in a 10-0 run for the U.S. to give the Americans a cushion — their first since the first quarter.
Stewart was one of five former Huskies on the U.S. rosters. She was joined by Sue Bird, Tina Charles, Katie Lou Samuelson and Diana Taurasi. The Phoenix Mercury star didn’t play because of back soreness.
The five received loud ovations from the fans when they were introduced pregame.
The Huskies celebrated the 2009 and 2010 teams that won national championships. The two teams were a combined 78-0 led by Maya Moore, who is sitting out her second consecutive WNBA season to push criminal justice reform.
A’ja Wilson missed the game because she had her wisdom teeth out. … This was the third time that Huskies had played an exhibition game against the U.S. national team. The Huskies also lost in 2000 and 2007.
U.S.: plays at Louisville on Sunday in final exhibition game before playing in Olympic qualifying tournament in Serbia. The Americans have already locked up a berth in Tokyo by winning the FIBA World Cup in 2018.
UConn: hosts Cincinnati on Thursday.