Steve Slade | Courtesy of UConn Athletic CommunicationsWomen's Basketball
Cicero-North Syracuse star leaves CNY, Syracuse behind for powerhouse UConn
The bleachers in the gymnasium at Cicero-North Syracuse High School were pulled all the way out. It doesn’t happen every night, but when the gym is packed to the brim like it was for much of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, it was a necessity.
Normally, this type of turnout for a high school basketball game in Central New York is reserved for Jamesville-Dewitt High School or Christian Brothers Academy when the likes of DaJuan Coleman, Brandon Triche or Greg Paulus were on the court.
But for those two years it was C-NS’s chance. At women’s games no less.
“Junior and senior year we definitely got a lot of fans at the game,” former C-NS and current Connecticut star Breanna Stewart said. “So it was nice to just see people come out and watch us play.”
Stewart’s been a star since she started almost every game on the varsity team as an eighth grader. By her sophomore season she was an everyday starter and averaged 22 points per game. In her junior year, she guided the Northstars to a state title and dunked for the first time.
In her junior season she verbally committed to Connecticut. The Huskies already knew what they were getting with the top-ranked player in the Class of 2012. The 6-foot-3, do-it-all player from North Syracuse was a complete package of skill, size and athleticism. She played everywhere on the court, from point guard to center.
Connecticut had its next star.
But in the first game after her commitment, she gave UConn another reason to be excited.
Stewart went for 30 points in a 64-28 blowout win over Baldwinsville High School on Feb. 7, 2011. It was a relatively pedestrian effort for the forward, but in the third quarter, the day became a milestone. Stewart stripped the ball from a Baldwinsville player and was off racing down the open court. Uncontested, Stewart attempted her first dunk. The ball rattled around, but fell in for her first career slam.
“It was very loud and a lot of people were holding their breath and screaming and every reaction you would assume when a girl does that,” Cicero-North Syracuse head coach Eric Smith said. “A lot of disbelief, a lot of screaming and hollering. It was cool to see.”
It was a star Syracuse could have used at the time.
The Orange was amid yet another Women’s National Invitation Tournament season. It hadn’t qualified for an NCAA Tournament since 2008.
When Stewart trimmed her list to 10 schools, SU was on it. Head coach Quentin Hillsman and members of the Syracuse coaching staff frequented Stewart’s games before she verbally committed to UConn. Most of the time, all the coaches and the star could do was exchange a smile and a nod, but the possibility of Stewart staying home to play for the Orange remained very real.
“Coach Q and his coaching staff are really, really good, and I liked Syracuse and it was really close to home,” Stewart said. “So I definitely considered them.”
The Syracuse area has produced Division-I basketball talent before — Nottingham High School alumnus Nikki Works scored 10 points in Temple’s WNIT loss to the Orange last year, and former Christian Brothers Academy player Leanne Ockenden has started all 15 games for Marist this season – but never before had there been one like Stewart.
She was a rare talent to grace Central New York.
Courtney Tennant, a graduate of Cortland High School and now a junior at RIT, is two years older than Stewart and played against her during Stewart’s freshman and sophomore years. Even then, it was clear Stewart was special.
“You knew that she wasn’t the typical high school player,” Tennant said. “People were talking about how she was going to go somewhere big, and it made you want to play better against her.”
Stewart had Connecticut, or Tennessee, or Baylor, or any other traditional women’s basketball power written all over her. Bringing her to the Orange would have been a major coup for Hillsman.
When Stewart announced her decision, there was no indication SU was going to boast a top-10 recruiting class, but a major player in that class was playing with Stewart at the time. Brittney Sykes, now a starting guard for Syracuse, played with Stewart in AAU for the Philadelphia Belles.
Both Stewart and Sykes said they talked about playing together in college, but Stewart’s decision came much earlier than Sykes’. When Sykes decided to play for the Orange, it became fodder for even more jokes.
“It was a joke behind her being from here and me coming here,” Sykes said. “… She always makes a joke saying that she would’ve went here if I made my mind up a little sooner.
“Me coming here, I said, ‘Oh, well, I’ll rep for your hometown now that you’re in UConn, so everybody can love me and forget about you.’”
What wasn’t a joke, though, was Stewart’s interest in SU. Hillsman unsurprisingly raved about Stewart’s ability in the preseason, but also had kind words for the budding star off of the court.
In addition to an otherworldly skill set, she’s extraordinarily humble.
“Even when she was a senior you wouldn’t have guessed she was going to UConn,” Tennant said.
That, too, is what Hillsman loved about her.
“She’s a great player and she’s going to have a great career and Breanna’s a good kid, and (I’ve) grown to love her family,” Hillsman said in the preseason. “She’s going to do well obviously.”
The interest didn’t come solely from the Syracuse side either. Living in Syracuse, almost everyone is an SU fan, and Stewart was no exception. She rooted for the men’s team and went to women’s home games often.
But the greatest attraction for Stewart was the opportunity to play for Hillsman. Just as much as the head coach raved about Stewart, the player raved about him – both his friendly, conversational demeanor as a recruiter and his personality on the sidelines.
“Whenever I remember going to the games he was just usually jumping around all over the place, almost like he was actually in the game, like he wanted to be in the game, but he couldn’t be; he had to be coaching,” Stewart said.
Since Stewart spurned Syracuse for Connecticut, SU has done well without her. The Orange landed three top-100 recruits, and moved into the top 25 of the USA Today Coaches Poll this week for the first time since 2011.
She would have been a nice piece to have, but SU is doing just fine. And even Stewart can be happy about that.
“It’s good to see them having success,” Stewart said. “I mean Coach Q has gotten that program going in a good direction and I think they’ve definitely come a long way.”
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