By Matthew Roberson
The Seattle Storm (14-18) hosted the Phoenix Mercury (16-16) on Sunday night, creating a showdown of two teams jostling for playoff positioning. Led by Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi, Phoenix gritted its way to a 75-71 win on the road.
Jewell Loyd emerged to score 33 points, a new career-high for the Storm guard. Breanna Stewart finished one rebound away from a double-double at 13 points and nine rebounds. Sue Bird chopped the gap between her and Ticha Penicheiro in half, dishing three assists to put her just three away from the WNBA record.
Loyd scored the first five points of the game for Seattle as the team made just 2-for-8 of its shots in the opening minutes. A low-scoring first quarter ended with Seattle hugging a 14-13 lead. Loyd led all scorers with nine points, while Griner scooped in eight first-quarter points for the Mercury. Seattle forced the visitors into four turnovers in the first ten minutes. Both teams struggled to get the ball in the hole. Led by Loyd, the Storm went 4-for-16 from the field in the first frame while Phoenix shot 5-for-18.
Three minutes into the second quarter, the Mercury had poked ahead for a 21-20 lead. Loyd came hard off a ball screen to drive her way to a layup at 5:44. This brought the count to 24-22 Phoenix and gave Loyd her 13th point of the night. When Stewart canned two free throws on the Storm’s next trip down the court, she tied the game at 24. Things remained tight for the rest of the half as both teams continued to put the clamps on defensively. Bird recorded her first two assists of the night as the first half wound to a close, finding Alysha Clark on a long, arcing outlet pass and Stewart for a contested shot at the rim.
Phoenix took a slim 36-34 lead into halftime. Loyd’s 15 points led all players at the break, with Griner right behind at 14. The Mercury shot 12-for-35 (34.3 percent) in the first 20 minutes, but the offense got a boost by going 11-for-11 from the free throw line. The offense for Seattle was slightly better, launching 12-for-32 (37.5 percent) on field goals. Points were not the only category in which the teams put up similar numbers. The first half box score indicated that each team had corralled 17 rebounds and made one three pointer.
Stewart had eight points and four rebounds at the half. Diana Taurasi finished the half with nine points, but Storm defenders did well to keep her in check from beyond the arc. The league’s all-time leader in points went 0-for-2 from deep in the initial half of play. Neither team was able to pull away, with the Mercury’s biggest lead at just four points, and Seattle’s largest lead at three points. The first half featured eight ties and eight lead changes. Both teams finished the half with 16 points in the paint, with identical 8-for-17 shooting numbers in the post. The Storm’s reserves mustered just two first half points, which came from Carolyn Swords. Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello utilized five bench players who combined for eight points at the game’s midway point.
Bird snagged the first points of the second half by stroking a three from the top of the key, giving Seattle a 37-36 advantage. Halftime seemed to cool down the Mercury, as the team went scoreless for nearly half of the third quarter. By the time Griner hooked in Phoenix’s first points of the second half, 4:58 had already elapsed off the third quarter clock. Brondello signaled for a timeout shortly after, standing under a scoreboard that read 43-41 in favor of the home team. She gave the team a lead, and her 11th point of the night, on the very next trip down the floor. Loyd sunk a fadeaway off Bird’s third assist to tie the game at 45, then hit a nasty step back to give the team a 47-45 lead moments later. At the end of three highly-contested, defensive-minded quarters, Phoenix had a 51-49 lead.
A Taurasi three swished through the hoop at the 8:43 juncture of the fourth quarter, giving Phoenix its biggest lead of the game (57-49). This mini 6-0 run was quickly halted when Swords gathered an offensive rebound and stuck it back home. Stewart buried a corner three to put her in double digits and claw Seattle within four (58-54). Bird’s pair of free throws at 4:59 set up an exciting finish, with Phoenix clinging to a two-point lead. As she has done hundreds of time in her career, Bird ignited a roar from the KeyArena crowd when she nailed a three with 4:06 remaining. Aside from getting the crowd fired up, the shot gave the Storm a 60-58 lead and gave Bird 10 points in the contest.
After falling behind briefly, Loyd put her team back ahead on a midrange J with the scoreboard showing 2:44. On arguably the biggest possession of the game, Griner undid a 66-66 tie with a hoop and harm under the basket, pushing Phoenix ahead by three. Loyd answered with an and-one of her own on the ensuing possession before Leilani Mitchell knocked in a momentous three-point bomb. Mitchell’s deep ball meant Phoenix had a 72-69 lead with 44.6 seconds to play. The Mercury were able to close the deal down the stretch, thanks to a big three from Taurasi, eventually winning 75-71.
Seattle will hit the road for its last two games of the regular season. The duo of games starts in Washington, D.C. on Friday, Sept. 1 before the regular season concludes with a game against the Chicago Sky on Sunday, Sept. 3.