By DOUG FEINBERG, AP Basketball Writer
UConn sophomore Breanna Stewart looks really comfortable in a USA basketball jersey.
She has been playing for her country since she was 14 and already has won five gold medals for the U.S. Stewart was one of six college players who attended the U.S. national women’s basketball camp in Las Vegas this past weekend.
On one play during a scrimmage at the camp, the 6-foot-4 star got an offensive rebound by skying above the rim and tipping it in for an easy two points. A few seconds later she drained a deep 3-pointer from the corner that helped her team pull off the victory.
“Those of us who know Stewie and know what she can do on a regular basis aren’t that surprised,” UConn and national team coach Geno Auriemma said. “She made a huge impression on everybody here, the players, the committee and the coaches.”
Auriemma had two of his other Connecticut Huskies in camp with senior Stefanie Dolson and junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. Senior Bria Hartley was invited but stayed home to rest a sore ankle. The three Huskies were joined by Notre Dame’s Kayla McBride, Baylor’s Odyssey Sims and Maryland’s Alyssa Thomas.
“If you just walked into the gym and didn’t know who anyone was or how old they were you might have been hard-pressed to figure out who was in college and who was in the pros,” Auriemma said.
The six collegians said they were a little nervous when the camp first started, but felt that they fit in.
“You sit there for a moment and see some of the legends of the game and it’s a little intimidating,” McBride said. “But then once you start playing, it’s just basketball. I tried to be a sponge and take in as much as I could from them.”
While a lot of the coaches referred to the group jokingly as the “babies” of the camp. The six had their own name made up:
“Pre-rookies,” Stewart said smiling.
Stewart is far from being a rookie with USA basketball. She’s always been playing beyond her years moving up age groups in international competitions.
She’s on pace to be the first player ever to win a gold medal for the U.S. at every major international competition. All she’s missing are the World University games, World Championship and Olympic golds. She could conceivably get all three in the next three years.
Stewart, who earned outstanding player of the Final Four honors as a freshman this past April, has already played in 47 international games _ the eighth most of any of 33 players invited to the training camp. Not bad for a sophomore in college.
“I just really like playing for USA and putting on that uniform,” Stewart said. “It’s a chance to represent your country and who wouldn’t want to do that.”
A few other college players were invited to camp but had to turn down the offer because of nagging injuries or the start of their college season.
It wasn’t the first time that college players have been invited to train with the national team as veterans Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles and Maya Moore all took part when they were in school. Still there have never been as many college athletes involved in a national team training camp.
“On the men’s side we did it in `92 with the Dream Team,” USA Basketball executive director Jim Tooley said. “It’s been fairly consistently throughout. We’ve had a few on the women’s side here and there. We wanted to bring in a lot more kids because they are the future of the program.”
Parker was really impressed by the young stars.
“Kayla McBride, she’s played extremely well. She’s knocking down the shot. I didn’t realize how strong and how much of a pro body she has already. Obviously Stewart has played amazing,” Parker said. I think it’s great for young guys to get out, get this experience and be able to play at the highest level with the national team. It’s a lot of fun because this is what you dream of doing, ever since you were younger, it’s to come out and play with the senior national team, try to get on the Olympic team and win a gold medal.”
It was also really helpful having the young players at the camp with five of the 32 players invited unable to attend because of the WNBA finals. Eight players, including returning Olympians Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, Parker, Fowles and Tina Charles, were in Las Vegas but unable to participate fully because of nagging injuries.
“The college kids got a little more time then they probably would have if everyone had been healthy and here,” Auriemma said. “But looking towards the future for the U.S. having them around and getting this experience will definitely help with that.”
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