Chicago Sky coach James Wade assumed Storm star Breanna Stewart would return from a two-game layoff and play Wednesday night for the slumping Storm, which had lost three straight games.
“We prepared for Stewie like she’s been playing,” Wade said during a pregame interview. “You never want to count her out. I think we’ll be ready as far as that’s concerned.”
Sure enough, Stewart cleared the WNBA’s health and safety protocols and just as Wade predicted, the Sky held her relatively in check.
However, Chicago had no answer for Ezi Magbegor, who scored a career-high tying 21 points to carry the Storm to a 74-71 victory in front of 7,450 at Climate Pledge Arena.
“When Ezi is aggressive, everyone is able to play off of her,” Stewart said. “Her taking on a bigger role and realizing that and embracing it is obviously going to help her continue to grow in her career.
“But also know, whatever Ezi wants to do she can do on the court and I’m going to read off of her and Sue (Bird) is going to read off of her and Jewell (Loyd) is going to read off of her because we know the type of player she is and can continue to be. When Ezi plays like she did tonight, it can only help our team.”
In her first game in 10 days, Stewart finished with 13 points on 5-for-12 shooting, five rebounds and four steals in 30 minutes.
“(Last) Wednesday I found out my COVID test was positive at 5 o’clock,” Stewart said. “We were about to go to the (Phoenix) game. I was dressed. I was having some symptoms and I was tested the day before and it was negative. From there, we were able to get to an Airbnb. I was in Phoenix until yesterday.
“I got back yesterday afternoon. Did all the things to get cleared to play and here I am. … COVID is real and COVID is still a thing. Just making sure that we’re all taking precautions to keep yourself safe and one another safe. But I’m very happy to be back and to be cleared to play.”
Admittedly, Stewart was unsure how many minutes she would play considering she experienced mild symptoms, including chest congestion recently.
“To be honest with you, we were just going to see how it was going,” she said. “A lot of times when you’re coming back from something or just haven’t played in awhile, it’s really mind over matter and not focusing on what I was doing this past week or what was happening yesterday.
“Just the fact I was here with my team and knowing if I’m going to be on the court, I’m going to make an impact and do whatever I can.”
Stewart’s return was a welcome sight considering the Storm is just 2-7 without the three-time WNBA All-Star forward since she was taken No. 1 overall in the 2016 WNBA draft, not including the 2019 season she missed due to an Achilles injury.
“Stewie is the best player in the world,” coach Noelle Quinn said. “It’s not about her putting on her cape and being Superwoman for us today. Just the comfort in knowing we have 20 points on the floor that we missed for a couple of games. And some presence defensively that we missed and an amazing human being that just elevates everybody’s play on the floor.”
But this game was all about Magbegor, the 22-year-old Australian who is blossoming into an emerging star while filling in for injured Mercedes Russell.
In her last outing, Magbegor dominated defensively and nearly posted a triple double while tallying eight points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks — the most for a WNBA player this season and one shy of the Storm record held by fellow Aussie Lauren Jackson.
On Wednesday, Magbegor used speed, quickness and guile to repeatedly outmaneuver six-time WNBA All-Star Candace Parker and Sky center Azura Stevens for baskets around the rim.
“We focused on getting more points inside the paint in this game,” Magbegor said. “I just had to have more of a post presence inside no matter who was on me and it just so happened to be Candace.”
A year ago, Magbegor also scored 21 points at Chicago in a game in which the Storm squandered a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost 87-85 in overtime.
“What I learned from the last time … was defending and getting to three-point shooters,” Quinn said. “Just being a lot more attentive to the personnel when it gets a little crazy.”
Seattle held Chicago to 6-for-17 shooting on three-pointers while draining 8 of 28 from deep.
The Storm also built a 46-34 halftime lead thanks to Magbegor, who scored 10 points in the first quarter and had 13 at the break.
The 6-foot-4 center poured in eight points in the third quarter when the Storm built a 50-36 lead early in the period.
“She’s so deserving of the moments that she can show the world what we see every day,” Quinn said. “She works extremely hard. She’s very humble. She’s an amazing teammate. She’s an amazing human being. Aside from that, she wants to be a great basketball player. It’s low maintenance. It’s not anything but hard work and dedication to her craft.
“I’m proud of moments like this because these are the things we tell her every day that she’s capable of. … And it’s not just the points. It’s the energy. Coming over to block shots. Plugging holes. The things that aren’t necessarily equated on the stat sheet that matters. … She’s not even scratched the surface of what we think she can be.”
The Sky outscored the Storm 22-16 in the fourth quarter and closed to within 74-71 with 35.2 seconds left.
Chicago had a chance to force overtime on its final possession when Allie Quigley’s three-point attempt over former Sky forward Gabby Williams hit the front of the rim and bounced away at the buzzer.
Stevens had 18 points for the Sky (2-2), which also received 11 points from Emma Meeseman, Coutney Vandersloot and Parker.
The Storm (2-3) hosts the Los Angeles Sparks on Friday.
“We had a lot of different factors this past week” Stewart said. “Us being stuck in Phoenix. Games continuing on. The biggest thing is getting the win and now having time to collect our thoughts and get in the gym tomorrow and get ready for LA.”