EVERETT, Wash. – Basketball players everywhere love those nights when the hoop seems like it’s a mile wide.
In the first quarter of the Seattle Storm’s high-stakes regular-season finale against the Phoenix Mercury on Friday, it was one of those hoops – and one of those nights – for Jewell Loyd.
Loyd poured in 22 of her career-high 37 points during the opening 10 minutes. But ultimately, it was her five points inside the final minute of the game that helped the Storm fend off a furious Phoenix comeback to lock up a 94-85 victory – and simultaneously lock up a first-round bye for the upcoming WNBA playoffs.
Seattle (21-11) tipped off the contest inside Angel Of The Winds Arena knowing that the coveted bye was on the line. Win, and get a few extra days of rest and preparation for a second-round knockout game on Sept. 26 at home. Lose, and the Mercury would reap that reward.
Thanks in large part to Loyd, with double-digit scoring help from Ezi Magbegor (15 points) and Mercedes Russell (14), those extra days are staying with the Storm.
Seattle is guaranteed at least the No. 4 postseason seed, but still could finish No. 3 depending on the outcome of Minnesota’s season-finale at Washington on Sunday. The Lynx are 21-10. If they and the Storm both finish with identical records, Seattle owns the tiebreaker for the higher seed by virtue of winning the season series, 2-1.
Phoenix, locked in at No. 5, will host a first-round knockout game next Thursday.
WHAT A WAY TO GET GOING
Loyd hit 12 of 23 for the game, but started off 8 of 9 in the first quarter – including a perfect 4-for-4 from behind the 3-point arc. She had 28 by halftime, which was one more than the entire team scored during the first half of Sunday’s 81-53 loss at Los Angeles.
A pair of Loyd free throws put the Storm ahead for good at 9-8 early in the first quarter. It was 33-26 at the end of one. The margin grew to 14 points by halftime at 61-47. It had been 11, but Loyd stole the ball under the Mercury basket with just more than two seconds left and streaked down the floor, chased by Shea Peddy.
With the horn about to sound, Loyd flung up a prayer shot from beyond the arc on the left side. She was knocked down by Peddy on the play. After a video review, the officials ruled the foul occurred before the horn and awarded Loyd three free throws. She sank all three. In so doing, she helped the Storm tie a franchise record for most points in a half – now the fourth time they’ve tallied 61.
The Storm kept their lead in the teens throughout the third quarter, and expanded it to a seemingly safe 22 points at 85-63 with 7:39 left in the game.
PHOENIX WASN’T FINISHED
But the Mercury (19-12) roared back, outscoring Seattle by a 22-4 margin during the next 7½ minutes and cutting the margin to 89-85 with 1:05 still showing.
Loyd, who to that juncture had scored just four points in the second half, had an answer, She drove from the right side and scooped a shot through the hoop, getting fouled by Brittney Griner in the process with 47.5 seconds left. She hit the free throw to complete the three-point play and push the Storm back into a three-possession lead at 92-85.
Kia Nurse, who poured in 28 points against the Storm on July 11 in the final game prior to the month-long Olympic break and had 13 on Friday, missed a 3-pointer from the right side with 36 seconds to go. Loyd corralled the rebound and was fouled by Skylar Diggins-Smith. She hit both free throws to make it 94-85.
Phoenix had two more tries from downtown, but missed both. Russell rebounded the second one with 25 seconds left, and the Storm essentially dribbled out the clock.
Loyd’s previous career high was 35, which she achieved twice, most recently on Aug 18 in an 83-79 loss at New York. She and Breanna Stewart, who sat out the final two regular-season contests with a foot injury, combined for the four highest-scoring games in the league this season. Stewart had 36 on May 22 at Dallas and 35 on June 27 at Las Vegas.