EVERETT – Noelle Quinn stressed the importance of winning the Storm’s regular-season finale Friday against the Phoenix Mercury.
“This is like a playoff game for us,” the Seattle coach said. “Minutes can’t matter today. We want to be playing and have our normal flow, but we’ve got to win the game. Whatever that takes, that’s what we have to do.”
For Jewell Loyd, the whatever-it-takes-approach meant the All-Star guard taking over the scoring load and pouring in a career-high 37 points to carry the Storm to a 94-85 victory at Angel of the Winds Arena in its regular-season finale.
Mercedes Russell added 14 points and Ezi Magbegor finished with 15 while replacing star forward Breanna Stewart, who sat out due to a left-foot injury.
The win guarantees Seattle (21-11) a top-four finish in the standings and a first-round playoff bye. The Storm will begin the postseason with a single-elimination game at home on Sept. 26 in the quarterfinals.
If the Minnesota Lynx (21-10) drops its final regular-season game at Washington on Sunday, then Seattle earns the No. 3 playoff spot because it has the tiebreaker advantage over Minnesota by virtue of its 2-1 record against the Lynx in the regular season.
The WNBA playoffs begin Thursday with first-round, single-elimination matchups pitting the No. 5 seed against No. 8 and No. 6 versus No. 7.
However, Loyd made sure the Storm would have a few extra days of rest.
“We all kind of knew the importance of this game,” she said. “Before we went out, Sue (Bird) reminded us this could be our last game together as a whole and to appreciate every moment of this. … That changes your mindset a little bit so it kind of made us play for each other from the start and not so much worry about the standings.”
The All-Star guard came out firing and scored on Seattle’s first possession, a 20-foot jump shot over the outstretched hands of 6-foot-9 center Brittney Griner.
Turns out, it was the start of a special night for Loyd.
After six minutes, she had 22 points, which tied a WNBA record for points in a quarter. She also doled out an assist in the first eight minutes to carry the Storm to a 24-16 lead.
“She was due for one,” Quinn said in reference to Loyd’s five-point performance in the Storm’s last outing. “We’ve been talking about her defensive effort and that did not waver. That first stretch when she was cooking like that, I got goosebumps. It felt good for her to see the ball go in, but for me I felt great for her because she works so hard and she deserves these moments.
“A lot of times people don’t understand that greatness that she has. Sometimes she might not understand that potential of her greatness. Somebody like me who is always in her corner, moments like that I love and appreciate because if you honor the game, it will reward you. If you stay the course, it will reward you. I loved it. I was a fan in those moments.”
Including a 21-point third quarter Aug. 18 against the New York Liberty, Loyd has two of the four highest-scoring performances in a quarter in WNBA history.
“Coming into the game, I was trying not to think,” Loyd said. “I was zoning out during the pregame talks and just trying to let my mind be clear. My teammates were hyping me up. I like when they’re happy so I was just trying to get us going early and that helped us get a win.”
Seattle was up 33-26 after the first quarter and maintained control throughout the second period. Griner brought Phoenix within five points (47-42) with a dunk in traffic with 5:08 remaining before the break.
The Storm finished the first half with a 14-5 run, including three free throws from Loyd, who was fouled with 0.5 seconds remaining in the second. She had 28 points at intermission.
Phoenix trailed 77-61 at the start of the fourth quarter before making a run in the final minutes and pulled to within 89-85 with 1:09 left.
On the ensuing possession, Loyd drove past Griner for a layup, drew a foul and drained the free throw for a 92-85 lead with 47.2 seconds left.
Loyd capped the scoring with two more free throws at the end. She connected on 12 of 23 field goals, including 4 of 7 three-pointers and 9 of 9 free throws while scoring the most points this season in the WNBA.
The Mercury (19-12) needed a win to preserve its chances of nabbing a top-four finish, but is locked in at the No. 5 playoff seed. Phoenix, which played its third straight game without Diana Taurasi (ankle), received 26 points from Griner and 17 from Shey Peddy.
“It’s huge,” Quinn said when asked about the eight-day layoff before the start of the playoffs. “If you think about what a few more days is for Breanna Stewart. What a few more days can give for our minds. We’ll take a couple of days off and get back at it.”