The WNBA Seattle Storm went into last Tuesday’s game against the Washington Mystics prepared for a tough game against an undefeated team.
The game turned into a good one as the Storm fought against a talented Mystics team that despite playing without Elena Delle Donne and other players due to illness or injury producing only eight for the game, but Seattle showed once again they could win close ones in the fourth as they defeated Washington 81-77.
It was the Mystics (4-1) first loss this season and the fourth win in a row for the Storm (4-1) after losing their home opener.
“It was a good basketball game,” said Seattle head coach Dan Hughes. “We knew Washington had a second half against Minnesota without [Elena] Delle Donne and had been able to pull that game out…they were a successful team you got to tip your hat they’re a good team. They’re good with her and they are good without her.”
The game started out strong for the Storm who were ahead after the first period 29-20 led by Seattle forward Breanna Stewart’s 14 points and guard Jewell Loyd’s 10.
They were going to need all they could get as the Mystics have shown over the last few games they were a second quarter team.
In the second quarter Seattle cooled and Washington guard Kristi Toliver continued her hot hand adding nine points in the second, she had eight in the first, to give the Mystics a 19-12 scoring advantage and take both teams into halftime with Seattle leading by two 41-39.
The first half ended with three players already in double figures. Stewart with 16, Loyd with 12 and Toliver with 17.
Coach Hughes knew they would need to do some things different to get the win and went to a defensive stance on Toliver to try and slow her down.
“I was really pleased down the stretch especially (when) we did a couple of things,” said Hughes. “I thought Alysha Clark came in, Toliver was really carrying them in the first half…we made a little switch and put AC on her. I thought her work on Toliver was really exceptional. That’s her role, to kind of help us in those situations.”
As Clark was keeping Toliver in check, she scored only three more points the rest of the way with none in the fourth, the Storm held a slim one point lead, 62-61 heading into the fourth and the team was focused on staying ahead.
And that focus was tested with 4:44 left to play and Seattle holding a four point lead.
The Storm drew up a play and in a move that Coach Hughes will likely never run again, they had guard Sue Bird throw a screen to free up the play.
Bird was hit hard in the neck by Washington forward Tianna Hawkins. It put Bird out of the game and after a lengthy look by the referees, it put a flagrant foul on Hawkins.
Seattle received two foul shots, both made by Loyd in Bird’s absence, and the ball with a five point lead.
It was a catalyst for the Storm who didn’t know if their captain would return but who knew they wanted to make sure to complete the win.
“I think it (the turning point) was the play where Sue got hit, honestly,” said Stewart. “When you have someone who’s our leader and obviously really important to this team go down like that, especially at home, we have to step up for her. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Thankfully she came back into the game but we knew we needed to close out the game and that’s what we did.”
The last few minutes saw both teams playing tough trading shots and creating turnovers but in the end it was great ball movement that freed up Loyd who ended up all alone for an easy jumper with 6.9 seconds left to give Seattle an 80-77 lead.
After a Mystics timeout Washington went to work to try and tie the game but a bad pass created a turnover and then a foul when Storm forward Natasha Howard grabbed the errant ball.
Howard hit one of two with .9 seconds left and Washington ran out of time as they fell to their first loss 81-77.
“…To me there were periods of really good play for us, there were periods where it was tough and that’s a tribute to Washington,” said Hughes. “I think that they make it tough on everybody, but I was really glad to see us have the lead and basically play with the lead against a good basketball team and find a way to finish.”
For the third game in a row Seattle saw both Stewart and Loyd go over 20 points, 25 and 27 respectively. Both have hit over 20 points in four of the five regular season games. Howard put in 14 points with Bird giving out seven assists.
Toliver led the Mystics with 20 points while Shatori Walker-Kimbrough came off the bench to score 18 and Hawkins added 17.
For Loyd it was her fourth straight game where her point total was in the twenties. The level of her game this season has a noticeable difference according to Hughes.
“What I have seen is maturity,” said Hughes. “This is a talented player but where she is seeking to make plays I have really seen her mature in that stretch. Obviously, she is getting attention, but she has had the patience to allow opportunities to come and what she makes of those opportunities, she had nine assists in the last game against Vegas. She just played to spots on the floor that are advantageous for basketball plays. She is also creating for her teammates. That’s what I have really seen the maturity of her realizing where to take her game and where to place herself to be most successful.”
Playing strong and fresh every game can be tough at this point of the early season as Seattle has played every other day since last Tuesday’s win at Phoenix.
Staying rested and ready to go is a balance the team and staff are working on daily and making changes to make sure the energy level doesn’t wane at the wrong moment.
“You do as much as you can without physically putting them back on the court,” said Hughes. “We do things by film by maximizing the time that we’re exerting energy. I think that the players do a good job of realizing that rest, nutrition, hydration and all of those things; when you’re in a schedule like this you have to be smart. I think their good about that. You have to mentally prepare to play more so than physically prepare.”
Hughes mentioned that the team looked at the schedule and thought through what they would need to do and according to him “more than any year I’ve ever been in the WNBA it’s going to be like this” and that their stretch of games like this is coming early while other teams will see it during a different stretch of the season. But doing as much mental work as they can while maximizing their time on the court is the formula they need to play their game.
For Loyd it’s about doing the job expected of you at this level.
“We don’t want to lose,” said Loyd. “Our mindset is just that we’re going to go in here and battle. We may not be able to shoot 100% all of the time or get beat a couple times on defense, but we’re going to stay in games. We’re going to compete and have that mindset of just to go out there and get it done as much as we can. It’s tough but it’s what we do and it’s our job to be prepared every game and go out there and compete.”
Loyd and the rest of the Storm will be taking on another familiar foe in their next game as the Las Vegas Aces head into town with the hopes of repaying their home loss to Seattle.
It’s expected to be another tough match-up considering that the second half of Seattle’s win saw the Aces coming back strong and saw the Storm needing to hit over the century mark to score the win.
“We have film. We’re going to watch our game and watch their tendencies,” said Loyd. “Really just approach this game how we approach every game, to go to our game plan, execute really well. We can’t always be concerned about other teams. If we’re doing what we need to do on the offensive end and the defensive end, we’ll be alright. Obviously they’re a really good team, they came back…but if we do what we do, things will come in our favor.”
Seattle also announced the release of 2018 WNBA Draft third round selection Teana Muldrow and the signing of 6-6 center Mercedes Russell. Russell, a native of Springfield, Oregon, played at the University of Tennessee and was the New York Liberty’s second round (22nd overall) pick in the 2018 draft.
Seattle takes on the Aces with former Washington Husky guard and 2017 number one pick Kelsey Plum and 2018 number one pick A’ja Wilson of South Carolina at 7 pm on Thursday, May 31 at the KeyArena.