UConn men's basketball senior to be honored at senior night
Published: Thursday, March 1, 2012
Updated: Thursday, March 1, 2012 23:03
As the Huskies were putting the finishing touches on a dominating win over Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year, coach Jim Calhoun looked to junior walk-on forward Ben Stewart and told him to go in.
Stewart had only seen three minutes of action all season, and even though the Huskies were ahead by 30, he played like he would never see another minute again. Stewart was all over the court, grabbing an offensive rebound and playing smothering defense every time an opposing player came his way. As the clock began to tick down, he posted up on a Bucknell defender and yelled for the ball.
He got the ball, forced his way inside and scored. The bench went crazy, cheering as if he had just hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer, and Stewart just smiled. Years of hard work had finally paid off.
"It felt crazy," Stewart said after the game. "Scoring your first basket in the tournament, that's what kids dream about."
To this day, that basket remains Stewart's only career score. Now a senior, Stewart has been with the program as a walk-on for four years, and tomorrow's game against Pittsburgh will be his last home game at Gampel.
"It's a weird feeling," Stewart said. "Just being a part of the program for four years, all the Gampel games I've played and all the things that I've seen, it's all coming to an end this weekend."
As a walk-on, Stewart's has been a part of two Final Four teams, including last year's national championship squad. But his contributions to the Huskies are not always obvious. He rarely sees action during games, but he is a key presence during practice, where he is expected to work just as hard as everyone else, and often is tasked with guarding the scholarship big men to help prepare them for the next opponent.
"He gives you a great effort every single day, he's very physical, he doesn't back off anything," said associate head coach George Blaney. "Most days the walk-ons play a lot of defense. He's gone against Hasheem Thabeet, he's gone against Andre Drummond, he's gone against Alex Oriakhi, Gavin Edwards, he's gone against some really good people and done a great job."
Stewart described Calhoun's practices as some of the toughest around, saying that Calhoun will find a way to get the best performance out of you, even if that means yelling and stomping his feet.
He recalled one instance back during his sophomore year when the team was working on a defensive drill, and he didn't put his hand up after former UConn forward Stanley Robinson pulled up for a three, 12 feet behind the arc.
Robinson made the shot, and Calhoun stopped the drill.
"He said, ‘You know it doesn't matter if you're a walk-on or a scholarship player, if you're blue or you're green, you've got to get your hand up and play defense. You're expected to play defense and that's what you're going to do,'" Stewart said, quoting Calhoun. "I left out some expletives on that speech but I'll definitely always remember that, that was the first time he really yelled at me."
Stewart is originally from Denver, Colo., where he starred at Kent Denver High School. He was initially recruited to play basketball by local Division II and Division III schools, but soon got Division I attention after Dartmouth, Harvard and Wisconsin started calling.
"My original plan was I was all set on going to the University of Wisconsin, I made an official visit there, I was speaking to the coach out there," Stewart said. "As the recruiting deadline kind of approached they kind of dropped me and they weren't really talking to me, the coach was not being responsive at all, so luckily I had applied to UConn just in case."
Stewart said his high school coach had once played with Blaney and the two were still close, so he was able to use that connection to get to know Blaney and eventually earn a spot on the team.
"I liked him as a player before he got here because he was tough," Blaney said. "He was always strong enough and tough enough. He was a little undersized for the way he plays, but he's been a great addition for us."
At 6-foot-5 and just over 200 pounds, Stewart never had a realistic chance of becoming a regular contributor at UConn. However, Blaney said that in a different program Stewart could have been a capable Division I player.
"I think he would have played for me at Holy Cross, I think he's that good a player that he would have played at a different level," Blaney said. "His size really hurt him here, but he's certainly been everything that we thought he would be in terms of helping us become a better team."