Seattle – In Saturday’s season-opener in Los Angeles, the Seattle Storm were without two key starters, as both Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart sat with knee injuries.
Seattle was again missing 36-year old veteran Bird in the team’s home opener on Sunday, but the return of the reigning Rookie of the Year ultimately proved to be the difference.
After Indiana erased Seattle’s 10-point fourth quarter lead to go up one with two minutes to play, it was the second-year forward out of Connecticut who came up big in four key plays in the game’s final 90 seconds, as the Storm squeezed out the 87-82 win.
“Literally, she did everything,” Storm head coach Jenny Boucek said. “And not only does she have the skill and the instincts, she has that it factor of the great champions to know it’s their time, and they can rise. That’s what separates stars, they can feel it when it’s their time, and they don’t just feel it, but they’re willing and able to rise to the occasion.”
Third-year guard Jewell Loyd led all scorers for the second straight night with 27 points, while forward Crystal Langhorne had 17 and Stewart had 15. Shenise Johnson had a career-high 24 points to lead Indiana, while Briann January matched her career-best with 23.
Loyd said Seattle has been working hard to shore up their deficits.
“I think the biggest thing we’ve been harping on — even last year — is just getting tough, finding ways to finish games, and I think we can see that today, we’re there,” she said. “We’re helping each other out on defense, we’re trying to get rebounds, we’re trying to box out, do all the little things, and just trying to close out games.”
Neither team led by more than four in the opening 10 minutes, with Indiana (0-1) holding a 22-21 lead after one quarter courtesy of a January three-pointer at the buzzer. That back-and-forth continued into the second, with both teams boasting advantages no larger than five, as the Storm (1-1) took a 37-34 lead into the break.
A 13-2 third quarter run gave Seattle it’s largest lead of the game at 12 with two minutes left in the period, but Indiana cut the gap to seven by the end of the third, and continued to slowly chip away at the deficit.
After a Loyd layup gave the Storm a 10-point edge with 7:21 to go, the Fever outscored Seattle 19-to-8 over the next five minutes of play to take a 77-76 lead.
That’s when Stewart made her mark.
The 6-foot-4 forward grabbed the rebound after Loyd missed the second of two free throws on the following possession, and then sunk the go-ahead three-pointer to give Seattle the lead.
“When they switched out on defense,” Stewart said, “I was surprised they did that.”
Then, with 35 seconds to play and the Storm still nursing that 79-77 advantage, Stewart found a cutting Langhorne in the paint for a lay in to put Seattle up four.
After an Indiana time out, Stewart leaped to block a left-handed lay up attempt by a driving January, with Noelle Quinn grabbing the deflection and making a pair of free throws to effectively put the game away.
“It just says that we’re a resilient team,” Stewart said. “We know things are going to happen in the game, and it’s not always going to go our way, but we’re going to make sure that we fight all the way to the end.”
Boucek said her team “didn’t have a lot of gas in the tank,” after yesterday’s loss, but that her players showed a lot of toughness to pull out the victory. The coach said the team was also able to feed off the Mother’s Day crowd of 7,969.
“We feel very connected to this crowd, so we know that if we do certain things they will respond to that, and then that gives us stuff to respond to,” she said. “We have to do our part in that, but this crowd will respond, and when they do it gives us tons and tons of energy that we needed today.”
Fever coach Pokey Chatman said she was happy that her team battled back from a 12-point deficit, but that it was too little, too late.
“That’s who we are – prideful,” she said. “I think it was just a matter of digging too deep of a hole early on. The momentum plays, those and-ones, really hurt. I saw a couple of positive things, and we’ll build on that.”
After Saturday’s game, Boucek said the Storm hadn’t been able to fully practice their offense with Bird and Stewart out. With Stewart’s return, Seattle can take the next step forward.
Stewart said the addition of center Carolyn Swords and the offseason improvement of forward Ramu Tokashiki has freed her up to do more things on court, like working off of her dribble.
“Having Carolyn here – another big body in the paint, both offensively and defensively, to help clean things up is amazing,” Stewart said. “Tok continues to gain more confidence and play like she plays in Japan, which is only going to help us.”
Seattle is back at KeyArena next Sunday to take on Elena Delle Donne and the Washington Mystics at 4 p.m.
In the meantime, the team gets a week to prepare and reset, while working both Stewart and Quinn (who was out for much of training camp) back into the fold.
“This will be a new start for us in a lot of ways,” she said.
- Erica McCall — Indiana’s second round pick out of Stanford — made her WNBA debut, scoring two points in just over five minutes of action. The forward is the Fever’s lone rookie.
- Did Not Play (Seattle): Sami Whitcomb & Lanay Montgomery (Coach’s Decision), Sue Bird (Left Knee)
- Did Not Play (Indiana): Jeannette Pohlen-Mavunga & Nadia Colhado (Coach’s Decision)
- Points in the Paint: Storm 36, Fever 26
- Second Chance Points: Storm 17, Fever 13
- Fast Break Points: Fever 7, Storm 2
- Attendance: 7,969