As the emcee’s voice rang throughout the AT&T Center during pre-game introductions of the San Antonio Stars’ home opener Friday, crowd anticipation was high.
Following a dismal 7-27 season a year before, San Antonio was awarded two of the top five picks in the WNBA draft last month. Presented with them the first time, the Stars faithful worked themselves into a frenzy with the announcement of each player’s name.
The loudest cheers were for No. 1 draft pick Kelsey Plum and second-year point guard Moriah Jefferson, though neither could play due to injury. Phoenix center Brittney Griner secured the opening tip over new San Antonio post Erika de Souza, and the game was underway.
The energy level was elevated to another level midway through the second quarter when Mercury guard Diana Taurasi was whistled for a technical foul after striking Stars forward Dearica Hamby across the head.
And as the crowd was energized, San Antonio seemed a revitalized team, as they kept the game close. The passive Stars from the last two years were nowhere to be seen, much to the delight of a few fans mingling in the concourse area during the break.
Alison Zerbeck, with her husband and two daughters, said the new-look Stars have great potential.
“I was a little disappointed that Kelsey isn’t playing tonight, but I think the team they have put together is very exciting to watch,” Zerbeck said. “I am looking forward to seeing them grow over the next few years and competing for championships in the near future. You can see how frustrated the Mercury players are that the new Stars aren’t backing down from them.”
Cecilia Rojas and her daughter Savannah – both wearing Stars gear – applauded the first half effort of the team, boasted by Savannah’s favorite player Kayla McBride, who was playing her first game with the team after winning a Turkish league championship only two days before.
“We knew a few of their players would be out but we were excited to see K-Mac warming up and my daughter is ecstatic that she is going to play,” Cecilia Rojas said. “I said last year that they had to get younger and more athletic and it looks like they have.”
Rojas, a high school basketball coach and an avid WNBA fan since its inception, also followed the now-defunct Houston Comets when legends Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson were storming the courts en route to four titles.
“It would be exciting if the new three (Jefferson, McBride and Plum) could accomplish the things that the Comets did. It would be great for the city.”
San Antonio rallied to trim a 10-point halftime deficit to 46-44 with a 10-2 run to start the second half, and they managed to stay within single digits of the Mercury. But late shots by Taurasi and Leilani Mitchell held the Stars off.
Jason Perez, 41, and his 14-and-under select basketball team were among the Stars fans who came away with a different perspective of the WNBA after the game.
“I had heard all the negative stereotypes that always come along with women’s basketball but wanted to bring my girls out to see how the professionals do it,” Perez said. “Needless to say, I am very impressed with the caliber and competitiveness of these women, and how they play the game.”
“San Antonio basketball has always been about hard work and fundamentals. The Stars seem to have a great gauge of what their fans want to see. They play hard and they play the game the right way. Whether they win one or five games I will definitely come back out to support them.”
Once the game ended, the Stars also gained a few admirers that weren’t a part of the paying masses that had gathered inside to support them.
And even though her team escaped with their second win of the season, Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello praised the efforts of rising San Antonio.
“They’re a good young team and they’re going to be a much better team when they get their point guards back,” Brondello said. “They have great (ball) movement, they have a lot of scoring options, a good inside-outside attack, and they are very physical. We just made to many breakdowns in the second half that we needed to tidy up, but credit to the Stars. They play hard every single possession.”
Taurasi was also impressed with the new direction in San Antonio.
“You can already see her (Coach Vickie Johnson’s) impact on the game tonight,” Taurasi said. “You can see what kind of team (they will have), what kind of program she’s going to run, and it really is just like her (and that’s) tough and in your face. Once they get healthy they’re going to be a hell of a team in the future for her.”
The Stars host Dallas at 11 a.m. Thursday, and Johnson hinted that her team may feature a few surprises.
“I will be excited to see our team Thursday against Dallas,” she said. “I think you guys will see the real Stars in action.”