Late threes doom Seattle in loss to Phoenix

Jewell Loyd scores two of her career-high 33 points on the night. Photo by Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Jewell Loyd scores two of her career-high 33 points on the night. Photo by Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Seattle — There’s new clarity in the bottom half of the WNBA playoff picture.

It’s just not the way Seattle would have wanted it – especially not in front of a season-high crowd of 13,882 on Fan Appreciation Night at KeyArena.

With a chance to move into a three-way tie for the No. 6 seed with a win Sunday over the Mercury — which would have given Seattle, Phoenix, and Dallas identical 15-17 records — the Storm could not overcome late defensive miscues, with three-pointers from Leilani Mitchell and Diana Taurasi sealing a 75-71 defeat.

Phoenix now sits alone in sixth with a 16-16 record, followed by Dallas at 15-17, and Seattle at 14-18. With Chicago’s loss to New York earlier in the day, the Mercury also clinched a playoff spot on Sunday, while the Storm have a 1.5 game lead on the Sky for the final position.

Jewell Loyd led all Seattle scorers with a career-high 33 points, followed by Breanna Stewart with 13 and nine rebounds, while Brittney Griner had 29 points to pace Phoenix. After sitting on Thursday against Los Angeles, Diana Taurasi returned to the Mercury lineup, and had 18 points on the night.

Storm head coach Gary Kloppenburg said that for the most part, his team played good defense, including holding Phoenix to under 40 percent from the field. But it was the self-inflicted mistakes that hurt them the most.

“I thought our turnovers — 15 turnovers and they score 18 points off it — to me that’s a major key to this game,” he said. “We can’t turn the ball over this much, especially in a tight game like this.”

Neither team led by more than four points at any time in the first three quarters, with Phoenix holding a two-point advantage both after 20 minutes, and heading into the fourth quarter.

The Mercury extended that edge to eight with three-pointers from Camille Little and Taurasi in the first 90 seconds of the final period, which forced a Seattle timeout.

But the Storm responded with a 11-1 run over the next four minutes, capped by a Sue Bird three with just over four minutes to play to give Seattle a 60-58 lead.

Griner scored her team’s next five points to put Phoenix back up 63-62, but Loyd answered with a fadeaway jumper to give the Storm a one-point advantage with under three minutes to go. Seattle then got a stop at the other end, with Stewart grabbing the rebound, and then drawing contact to head to the line.

That’s where things began to turn.

Breanna Stewart is defended by Brittney Griner. Photo by Neil Enns/Storm Photos.
Breanna Stewart is defended by Brittney Griner. Photo by Neil Enns/Storm Photos.

Stewart missed both free throws, and Leilani Mitchell hit her first of two three-pointers in the game’s final two minutes to give Phoenix the lead.

Loyd answered with a lay-up, but fouled Griner on the ensuing possession, allowing her to finish off a three-point play.

Again, Loyd responded, this time drawing contact on a drive of her own, and she too made the basket and free throw to tie the game at 69. With 45 seconds to go, Phoenix again found Mitchell open, and the ninth-year guard from Utah again connected from long range to put the Mercury ahead for good.

Stewart made two free throws on the following possession to make it a one-point game, but a lapse by the Seattle defense left Taurasi open for what would be the game-sealing three with 15 seconds left.

“That last play, we wanted to not let her use that screen and roll,” Kloppenburg said. “We made a couple mistakes on that last play where Taurasi got that three.”

Seattle now closes out the regular season with two road games, Friday at Washington and Sunday at Chicago, as the team tries to hold on to a playoff spot.

“We know it’s crunch time for us,” Loyd said.

Phoenix finishes the season with two home match ups, Friday against Connecticut and Sunday versus Atlanta.

“We’re looking to play more consistently,” said Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello. “We had our moments tonight but just playing consistent ball going into the playoffs is what every team wants. Gaining momentum in the end is what it’s all about. It’s not about how you start the season, it’s how you end it.”

Dribbles:

  • With Sunday’s win, Phoenix also takes the season series 2-1. The Mercury won the first match up in Seattle, 85-82 on June 23, while the Storm won the lone game in Phoenix, 98-89 on Aug. 12.
  • Sue Bird is now three assists shy of breaking Ticha Penichiero’s WNBA assist-record, after finishing with three on Sunday night.
  • With two steals on the night, Mitchell now has 250 for her career.
  • Lanay Montgomery was the lone Storm player to not see the court on Sunday, while Alexis Prince did not play for Phoenix and Angel Robinson missed her fifth straight game with a right knee injury.
  • Loyd on her 33-point effort: “I was just being patient, trying to get some space, and then just playing aggressive.”
  • In the crowd: Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor sat courtside on Sunday, while a pair of Storm legends — Tanisha Wright and Simone Edwards — were also on hand. Edwards also hosted a clinic for long-time season ticket holders earlier in the day and was on the KeyArena concourse before the game, signing copies of her new book, “Unstoppable.”
  • Attendance: 13,882