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Wednesday April 11, 2012 Azania Stewart on verge of Olympic hoop dreams coming true

Updated: 7:22pm, April 11

AzaniaGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In her final collegiate game, Florida center Azania Stewart scored 13 points and grabbed four rebounds in a second-round NCAA Tournament loss.

The opponent was Baylor. The opposing center was NCAA Player of the Year Brittney Griner.

“I thought I played great against her,” Stewart said Wednesday.

If Stewart sounds confident, it’s because she is. Sure, the 6-foot-8 Griner scored 25 points, grabbed nine rebounds, blocked six shots and even dunked on the Gators on the way to leading her team to the NCAA title. Stewart, though, took an air of self-assurance from her performance on that national stage; one she hopes can be a bridge to an international one.

As in the Olympics.

While fellow members of her 2012 graduating class are walking the O’Connell Center stage May 5, Stewart will walk onto to a basketball court in England as one of 20 finalists chosen to play with Great Britain’s preliminary squad as the team prepares to select its roster for the Summer Olympics in London.

The roster will be pared to 12 and announced June 22. The chance for Stewart, born in London, to wear the jersey of her homeland in the very city she was born is a true once-in-a-lifetime shot.

“Every day I look up at our greats,” Stewart said, motioning to a wall inside the UF basketball complex where giant photos hang of the Gators’ previous two Olympians, Tammy Jackson and DeLisha Milton. “I’m about to add to those. I’ve been working for this goal and dream the last three years. ... Now, it’s time to roll.” Z mugshot

And to think, of all places, the Summer Games will be held in London for the first time since 1948.

“This isn’t just an opportunity, this is history,” Gators coach Amanda Butler said.

The 6-foot-4 Stewart, who prepped at Middleburg (Va.) Notre Dame Academy, spent the previous three summers playing for various Great Britain traveling teams that competed internationally. In 2010, Stewart’s team earned a bid to the Eurobasket Championship in Poland, but lost on the final day of qualifying to eventual champion Russia.

“It’s a great group of girls,” Stewart said. “I was the youngest the last three years, but it’s been great learning from their experience. They’re all pros and play overseas, so I really get to learn, but I get to bring some youth and fun and my personality. I mean, it’s a good time.”

It’s about to become all business.

“Now, it’s buckling up and getting ready for the real deal,” she said.

Stewart has an excellent shot of making the team. The commitment she made to return to England the last three summers -- and playing for Coach Tom Maher each year -- should give her a leg up on the competition.

This season, in helping the Gators back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, Stewart averaged 6.3 points and 5.5 rebounds. For her career, Stewart shot 54.4 percent from the floor and will leave UF as the No. 3 shot-blocker (205) in school history.

Stewart hopes to use the six weeks of training to focus on honing her post game and become a more well-rounded and fluid player in the paint -- “be a gazelle, not a dinosaur,” Maher tells her -- and even work to develop a mid-range jump shot.

Z vs BG After that, the world will await (literally) while the Gators watch (joyously).

“As we build and try to find people to join our program and perpetuate the level of success we’re trying to achieve, having players like Azania achieving milestones, I think it speaks a lot to where we are,” Butler said. “For all the work she’s put forth and what she’s done for us in her four-year career, she deserves it. I just hope she gets this opportunity.”

So do her teammates, each of whom Stewart -- affectionately known to them simply as “Z” -- recently gave towels emblazoned with Britain’s famous Union Jack logo.

“I think it’s the highest honor in sports,” senior classmate and guard Jordan Jones said of Stewart’s Olympic hopes. “In my opinion, it’s bigger than an SEC championship or even a national championship. Just the pride of playing for your country is much bigger than anything you could do in college.”

It’s possible, in fact, Stewart could get another crack at Griner (like the photo to the left), who is expected to be chosen as the 12th and final member for the U.S. Olympic team, coached by Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma. Only this time, Griner will be just another American superstar -- along with the likes of Candace Parker, Maya Moore, Sue Bird, Tamika Catchings, Diana Taurasi and more.

Stewart would relish a chance to play -- yes, even get crushed -- by the best players in the world.

Better yet, to see just how she measures up.

“Four years at Florida has prepared me,” Stewart said with a smile. “I’m feeling pretty confident.”

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