It took a legacy, an MVP and the tenacity of a gnat for the Seattle Storm to gain a 94-84 game five win over the Phoenix Mercury and the franchises third trip to the WNBA finals.
“I thought it was a great series and I thought Phoenix was amazing,” said Storm head coach Dan Hughes. “It was just some of the best basketball I’ve seen in the WNBA in a lot of years that I’ve been around. I thought it taught us a lot about what it really takes when you got that level of team play, and that level of individual play.”
The Mercury came into the final game with momentum after winning the previous two games in Phoenix. They had their big three guard Diana Taurasi, forward DeWanna Bonner and center Brittany Griner working smoothly and producing a comeback after being down 2-0.
“I think it was a fantastic series. It’s great for the WNBA and I think we faced a lot of adversity so I’m really proud of my team…we just continued to fight,” said Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello. “It’s great to see DeWanna Bonner back playing fantastic. This girl here [Diana Taurasi], pretty amazing, she’s pretty special but she’s played probably her best career [series]…But look, Seattle is a very good team. They’re the number one team in the league and they proved that tonight. They’ve got Sue Bird who I think is one of the all-time greats here and just her experience and Stewie [Breanna Stewart] playing big time. They just played hard. It’s just unfortunate that only one team can move forward because it was a great series.”
Seattle, after staving off two attempted comebacks from the Mercury in the first two games to claim the wins, was facing the possibility of being the first team to lose a series after taking a 2-0 lead and facing the legacy of Taurasi’s 13-0 record in elimination games.
Early on it was Phoenix who looked like the team who came ready to make the finals as they shot out to an 8-0 lead while the Storm struggled to find a basket.
The Storm finally scored a point when forward Breanna Stewart was fouled and made both free throws to make the score 8-2.
The game progressed into its usual physical competitiveness and for the first half and into most of the third it seemed that the Mercury were in control as they lead the game until Seattle was able to grab a tie at 57-57 with 2:57 left in the third quarter.
“You got to take your hat off to the heart we had down the second stretch, all we had heard was fourth quarter separation [between] Phoenix and Seattle and so we really dug in,” said Coach Hughes. “Watching Sue Bird for example kind of have the presence in that moment. I played Stewie (Breanna Stewart) for the first time 40 minutes and then you get a player like Sami Whitcomb who trains like no other and was ready for a big moment. So a lot of things that we had to dig to get. That was what you got to do to advance, and so advance we will.”
As they advance to the finals the Storm could look at took two moments in the second half including the addition of the tenacious play of Whitcomb to seemingly give Seattle the extra motivation they needed to stave off the Mercury and claim the series.
First, it was Bird going off in the fourth as she scored 14 of her 22 points in the quarter. It was an extraordinary effort by a legend who’s had so many extraordinary moments. Asked if she knew what got her moving the guard wasn’t sure herself but it was the advice of her MVP that got her shot back on track.
“I don’t even know, to be honest, what happened,” said Bird. “These weren’t set plays run for me to get free. As the game went on, I got some of the same looks early I just didn’t make them. Honestly Stewie’s [Breanna Stewart] the one, somewhere late in the third or early fourth quarter she’s like, ‘Hey, you need to use your legs.’ I was like, ‘Oh yeah, good point.’ Cause a lot of the shots I’d been taking in that third quarter I was really short. When I had the openings, I just tried to think about that and shoot it the same way. That’s something that you learn over time. You can’t let missed shots affect your next one. It’s a lot easier said than done. I’m happy that Stewie reminded me of that and like I said, I just got open. It was mostly off of them having to focus on Stewie so much because she was being so aggressive. Other players were kind of getting in there creating these openings and a lot of it was just kick outs to me and I was able to just knock them in.
And where does this rank for the guard playing in her 17th season who’s won NCAA championships and four gold medals?
“As far as stretches go, I mean, this is up there,” said Bird. “I don’t know that I’ve had a fourth quarter like this in as big of a game in my life, to be honest.”
With Bird leading the scoring in the fourth the other side of the Storm’s energetic push to gain the win was the play of Whitcomb who was praised by her captain with her play in the game and her work leading up to it.
“UW! Sami was huge,” said Bird. “I think there was an energy that we were lacking and the minute she got in the game, not just in the second half, first half as well. Hit a three, she gets hustle plays…The thing about Sami, she’s the most annoying player to practice against. I’m not kidding, top three in my career because she just never stops. She’s the leading scorer in practice by far for this season, without question. She never stops, it’s constant movement, she’s a gnat on defense. I thought she did a great job defensively as well. We really needed that. Listen, this series has been like a grind I think for both teams…and then you just inject Sami and she’s like [the] Tasmanian devil out there and we needed that. It really raised all of our energy levels…It takes players like that – that’s what makes championship teams.”
After Phoenix guard Briann January got into a tussle with Bird and Bonner jumped in to try and grab the ball Bird became upset after claiming January raked her mask causing her nose to bleed.
But with 2:58 left in the game the referees ended up calling a jump ball between Bird and Bonner and despite Bonner winning the jump it was Seattle guard Alysha Clark who came up with the ball. It was a fact that Bird said “was huge” that allowed the Storm to retain the ball and run down the clock a little more.
But despite the fact Seattle had caught up with the Mercury and had taken the lead in the fourth Bird knew that nothing was for sure when playing against Phoenix and thinking they had it won wasn’t a given.
“No!” said Bird when asked if they ever thought they could exhale in the fourth. “I looked up, there’s 45 seconds, I think it was under a minute and we were up nine maybe and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, if they hit a three, it’s a six-point game! Or if they hit a three, it’s a four-point game!’ That’s what we learned in the first couple of games – they’re never out of it when they have Diana [Taurasi]. That probably helped us win this game, to be honest, that experience.”
It was team ball all game for the Storm and that included those on the bench. Whitcomb had come into the game with a few minutes left in the third quarter. She would end up playing the whole fourth quarter leaving an All-Star on the bench who showed her respect to the second-year player.
“If any of you saw Sami Whitcomb work you would understand why it was so joyous that she grabbed that moment and Jordan Canada was doing the same things and different players off of that,” said Coach Hughes. “They’re such a good team and the thing that made me so confident down the stretch as I walked down to Jewell (Loyd) and I said to Jewell Loyd ‘you stay ready’ and she goes, ‘Sami’s [Whitcomb] gone, let her go coach.’ All about the team, all about the team. That was the moment I knew. You know what, that’s how you find success is when the totality of what you’re doing is greater than your own place.”
Stewart ended the game with 28 points and seven rebounds while Whitcomb scored 11 points with four assists.
Clark led all rebounders with 13 and scored 13 points. Clark was also tasked, as usual, with guarding Taurasi who she held to 17 points which if you know what Taurasi can do is a fantastic defensive day.
It was a hard fought contest that would have only been made better if it had been the finals with the high-level of play and crowds who knew how to show their support to help their teams win.
Taurasi who’s seen plenty of crowds throughout her playing days has always shown her love for playing in Seattle and showed her respect to the loyalty of Storm fans.
“It’s one of the best places to play basketball hands down,” said Taurasi. “You think about some of those basketball places where you know you’re going to walk into the arena, it’s going to be rowdy and if they make a shot, they’re going to blow the roof off this place and today was no different. You could feel that the crowd was on edge, they were ready. It’s just a great place for basketball. I’ve been coming here since 2004 now and whether it’s a first place Seattle team or a team that struggled, I think that’s the one thing, that this fan base is so loyal. They respect their team, no matter what’s going on or how the season is going and that shows a lot.”
It’s a sentiment that has always been at the forefront of the Storm players. They believe without a doubt that the fans will always keep the Key rocking and they can always count on their support.
“I thought it was unlike any moment I’ve had as far as understanding a building in harmony with a team,” said Coach Hughes. “Even when we were down, I looked up we were down about nine or something and you could have sworn that we were rolling. And I’m looking at the crowd and I’m watching how they, they didn’t just engage the moments where the Storm was doing good, they engaged the moments where they wanted us to do good. And it was loud and there’s no doubt that that’s a motivating factor when you’re talking about as many games as we played and coming back home. I just said to the team this morning, I said we started this journey April 29, and now we’re here, now we’ve got a chance at Key Arena, with our fans, to win one game and go to the finals. They’re a part of what we’re doing and we certainly share this moment with that crowd today it meant a lot.”
The Storm will be able to continue sharing these moments with their fans as they face the Washington Mystics who earlier in the day defeated the Atlanta Dream 86-81 to take the series 3-2. It is the first WNBA Finals for the Mystics franchise.
The WNBA finals begin at 6pm on Friday, September 7 at the KeyArena in Seattle. The second game will be at 12:30 pm on Sunday, September 9 with the third game scheduled at 6pm in Washington DC at on Wednesday, September 12. If necessary games will be Friday, Sept. 14 in Washington and Sunday, Sept. 16 in Seattle.