EVERETT – After collecting their diamond-encrusted rings and unveiling a new championship banner, the Storm officially closed the books on the 2018 season.
“The rings are huge,” guard Jordin Canada exclaimed. “Humongous. I wasn’t expecting that, but it’s beautiful. And to see that banner come down and to know that we were a part of it was an amazing feeling.”
The emotional ceremony Saturday afternoon drew a 23-minute standing ovation from the soldout crowd of 8,500 at Angel of the Winds Arena and gave fans one more chance reminisce and relive the team’s third league title.
Once the pregame celebration ended, the injury-ravaged, new-look Storm stunned their critics – and perhaps surprised themselves – while overcoming a double-digit deficit and pulling away from the Phoenix Mercury for a 77-68 victory in the season opener.
It was a gritty performance from a Seattle team that played without three starters in reigning MVP Breanna Stewart, perennial All-Star Sue Bird and defensive ace Alysha Clark.
And just maybe, it was a statement to the rest of the league and anyone who is overlooking the defending WNBA champions.
“Don’t doubt us,” forward Natasha Howard said. “Even though we’re down two players with injuries, just don’t doubt us. Anything can happen this season.”
Clark is expected to return in the near future, but the Storm will have to figure out a way to win without Bird, who is out indefinitely due to impending surgery on her left knee, and Stewart, who will miss the season because of an Achilles injury.
Howard stepped into the role as the No. 1 scoring option and put on a flawless performance that was every bit as good as Stewart’s amazing spectacles from last year.
“She’s just all over the place,” interim coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “She’s such a complete player. She rebounds. She’s getting put-backs. She can make threes. She’s a difficult matchup for them because she’s moving around so much.
“With our offense, she’ll set a screen on one side of the floor and she’ll maybe end up on the other side of the floor setting a screen so it’s really difficult to zero in and defend her.”
Howard finished with 21 points on 8-for-19 shooting, a career-high 16 rebounds, five steals and three blocks in 36 minutes.
And despite surrendering 7 inches and 40 pounds, the 6-foot-2, 165-pound forward held Phoenix star center Brittney Griner to 18 points and eight rebounds.
“Natasha is that person that does whatever we need her to do whether that’s shots, rebounding or passing,” Canada said. “She can do it all. It’s not a surprise. She’s getting better every year.”
The Storm also received 17 points from Jewell Loyd, who overcame a sluggish first half, while Canada tallied 16 points and seven assists, which offset six turnovers. Crystal Langhorne added 10 points.
“We had really good balance,” said Kloppenburg, who is filling in while Dan Hughes recovers from surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his digestive tract.
The Storm quartet overcame a superlative performance from All-Star forward DeWanna Bonner (game-high 31 points, seven rebounds and four assists), who carried a short-handed Phoenix team playing without Diana Taurasi (back), Camille Little (ankle) and Sancho Lyttle (knee).
Seattle looked as if it was going to blow the game open and built its largest lead (56-42) late in the third quarter before Bonner scored every basket for the Mercury during a 15-2 run to pull within a point (58-57) early in the fourth.
“She got loose on us in that little period and kept them in the game,” Kloppenburg said. “We tried to do a lot of jump switching with her and tried to take her out of some of those drives. … She’s very good. She’s a really difficult matchup.”
After Bonner’s exploits, Loyd and Canada took over and each tallied eight points while the Storm outscored the Mercury 19-11 the rest of the way.
Despite converting just 6 of 19 three-pointers, the Storm forced 20 turnovers that led to 23 points. Seattle also converted 15 of 23 free throws, while Phoenix was 8 for 8 at the line.
“It’s a resilient group and it’s a competitive group,” Kloppenburg said. “That team that we have now even without Birdy and Stewie, they’re competitors. There’s some veterans in there that have been in the league a long time and they want to win and they want to compete.”
Seattle (1-0) embarks on a three-game road trip to Minnesota, Atlanta and Chicago.