Breanna Stewart was sensational with 28 points for Seattle, but Jewell Loyd was clutch in the fourth quarter while scoring the last seven points for the Storm.
After claiming the league MVP trophy in a pregame ceremony, Breanna Stewart proved why she’s deserving of the hardware as she carried the No. 1 seed Storm for most of WNBA semifinal opener Sunday with a dominant performance.
But as good as Stewart was – and she was spectacular while scoring 28 points and draining six three-pointers – Seattle needed its quartet of stars to hold off No. 5-seed Phoenix for a 91-87 victory.
In particular, Jewell Loyd was at her best when the Storm was falling apart and unable to score a basket or slow down the Mercury in the fourth quarter.
Loyd finished with 23 points to match her career playoff high and scored the final seven points for Seattle, which was outscored 20-12 in the fourth quarter.
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“It was very pivotal,” Seattle coach Dan Hughes said of Loyd’s play. “That’s just a young player evolving and knowing how to put herself in the best situations when the game is on the line.”
Ahead 54-50 at halftime, the Storm built a 16-point lead midway in the third quarter and led 79-67 at the start of the fourth when the Mercury made one last push.
In its previous outing, Phoenix overcame a fourth-quarter deficit for a 96-86 upset victory at No. 3 Connecticut in a single-elimination quarterfinal Thursday.
“You always think that you are going to pull out the win,” said Mercury forward DeWanna Bonner, who had 27 points and 13 rebounds – both team highs. “I think that we started finding our rhythm. We were one rebound away. We have to be better than that. … We were just one step behind.”
Phoenix center Brittney Griner wasn’t much a factor Sunday and finished with 13 points, but she converted a putback that cut Seattle’s lead to 89-87 with 1:40 left.
Following a Storm timeout, Seattle’s Alysha Clark missed a three-pointer but Stewart swooped in the paint to snare a critical rebound and retain possession.
Seconds later, Loyd buried a dagger mid-range jumper with 1:00 left that brought the sold-out KeyArena crowd of 9,686 to its feet.
Neither team scored the rest of the way.
“We just didn’t stop,” Stewart said. “We didn’t freeze when things got tight. Playing Phoenix, you know that they are always in the game, no matter if it’s a two-point game or a 10-point game, they have the opportunity to come back and win.
“We made some hustle plays that gave us multiple possessions, especially the one where Jewell hit that big shot. That was huge.”
Not to be outdone, Natasha Howard scored 20 points after picking up the WNBA Most Improved award earlier in the day. And Sue Bird, who won the league’s Kim Perrot Sportsmanship honor, finished with 10 points and 10 assists.
Even though the statistics suggest otherwise, Clark played solid defense against Diana Taurasi, who became the WNBA’s career leader in playoff scoring Sunday. The Phoenix star finished with 25 points, but she also had six turnovers and her frustrations with officials resulted in a technical foul just before halftime.
“I was going to go talk to my teammate and apparently they thought I was going to go and kill someone,” said Taurasi, who led the league with eight technicals during the regular season. “They acted like I had a gun in my back pocket.”
Despite forcing 16 turnovers, the Storm didn’t slow down the Mercury, which shot 52.3 percent from the field.
However, Seattle pulled away behind a blistering three-point attack that converted 13 of 32 shots behind the arc. Phoenix was 10 of 26 from downtown.
“Once we get going, we just get going,” said Loyd who was 2 of 5 on three-pointers. “It doesn’t take long. Someone hits a shot, we feed off the crowd, then someone else hits another shot. … That is something that we have been doing all year. Anyone can score and anyone can get it going.”
Every Storm starter drained at least one three-pointer – none more lethal than Stewart, who notched her career playoff scoring high.
“We gave her too many open looks (in the first half),” Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said. “This is the MVP. She’s a pretty special player and she can score. She had five threes in that first half. I don’t think we were locked in.
“We weren’t playing with a sense of urgency. We were closing out when she caught the ball instead on the flight of the ball. … We’ll get ready for next game and hopefully we can limit some of those easy baskets that she gets.”
Game 2 of the best-of-five series is 7 p.m. Tuesday in Seattle.
“We know what we are supposed to do,” Stewart said. “(Monday) we will have another day to practice and prepare and we will watch this film and take whatever we can from it.”