Early in her career, Jewell Loyd wouldn’t have recovered from a miserable offensive performance like the one she had Thursday night.

Through three quarters, the four-time WNBA All-Star guard tallied just four points on 0-for-5 shooting in the biggest game of the year and the No. 4 seed Storm were on the brink of losing to the No. 5 seed Washington Mystics in its playoff opener.

Needing a basket in the final minute, coach Noelle Quinn called timeout and drew up a play for Loyd who admittedly rushed a long three-pointer that bounced off the rim.

Tina Charles snagged the offensive rebound and the Storm put the ball and the game in Loyd’s hands once again.

This time she drove left, pulled up in the lane and sank a mid-range jumper over Natasha Cloud with 42.7 seconds for the go-ahead basket that led to a Seattle’s 86-83 victory in Game 1.

“First half she didn’t hit a bucket, but I’m very proud of her because it shows a lot of growth,” Quinn said. “Being here with her as her teammate and knowing in the playoff situations that she’s been in and maybe she hasn’t pushed through. And she pushed through today in a big way and a major way.

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“It wasn’t how she started, but how she finished. Those were big buckets down the stretch. … We grew up in a big way today.”

No one more than Loyd, who scored 12 of her 16 points in the fourth quarter.

Since a frigid shooting performance led to a reduced role in the 2018 playoffs, the 28-year-old Storm star has matured into a cold-blooded late-game closer who has hit some of the biggest clutch shots in franchise history.

“I’m eight years in and if I haven’t grown that’s a problem,” Loyd said. “I’m old. I’m a vet. … That’s the player that I’m trying to grow into. The person that I want to be. It’s just growth. I want to evolve.

“As a rookie you get frustrated when you’re not making any shots. When you’ve been in this league, you understand the flow of the game, who you are and your teammates, time, score and all of those things.”

Once Loyd got going, she could hardly miss while connecting on four of six shots, including a pair of three-pointers, in the fourth quarter.

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“I felt like I got shots early, but they didn’t go in,” Loyd said. “I just stayed patient. The second half came around and my teammates kept encouraging me. They went to me and I was able to get to my spots. That’s what the playoffs are about. You got to adjust. That’s what we did and we were able to get some defensive stops. The crowd was amazing. I fed off that energy a lot. The shots went in and I kept rolling.”

Cloud added: “That’s just a great player getting hot. She made tough shots down the stretch. We knew that they were going to go to her. That’s just on me. I promise you I’m going to be better the next game.”

Leading 82-81 after Loyd’s dagger, Seattle benefited from Cloud’s errant pass out of bounds on the ensuing possession. After two Loyd free throws, Washington’s hopes of stealing a game on the road vanished when Elena Delle Donne missed a game-tying three-pointer with 16.1 seconds left.

“We spoke about whoever does the little things is going to win the series,” Delle Donne said. “And the little things turn into big things. Down the stretch, we had some key rebounds that we missed. There were times we didn’t get the ball where it needed to be. And we were just careless with the ball at times.”

Cloud added: “If I was a younger player, I would be hanging my head a lot more. But the reality is that one turnover didn’t decide the game. We made mistakes before that, but I do need to take care of the ball down the stretch. That’s my job to put us in successful situations. It’s a tough one.”

The Storm shot 50.8% from the field, 50% on three pointers (10 of 20) while finishing with more free throws (16 to 14) and rebounds (31 to 27).

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And yet, Seattle was fortunate to escape with a 1-0 lead in the best-of-three series..

“Wins like tonight show that we’re relentless,” said Breanna Stewart who had 23 points and 12 rebounds. “We know that basketball is a game of runs. Washington had theirs and it was a pretty late run and we were able to combat that and come back and make a run of our own.

“The roster that we have, we trust one another so much offensively and defensively to know we’re going to make big plays down the stretch.”

The Storm fell behind 77-72 early in the fourth quarter thanks in large part to Delle Donne, who scored 11 of her game-high 26 points in the final frame.

For most of the game, Stewart, Charles and backup center Ezi Magbegor were unable to slow down the Mystics star who converted 11 of 14 shots in her first playoff game since guiding Washington to the WNBA championship in 2019.

“Elena is really tough to guard,” Stewart said. “She hit some really tough shots.”

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It wasn’t just Delle Donne. Ariel Atkins and Cloud each scored 16 points, rookie center Shakira Austin had 12 points and seven rebounds in her postseason debut and the Mystics shot 48.5% from the field.

Seattle countered with a collective effort highlighted by Gabby Williams who finished with 12 points, seven rebounds, six assists, three steals, a block and several crowd-pleasing plays for her sixth straight all-around virtuoso performance.

Sue Bird added 10 points and the Storm’s bench outscored the Mystics 16 to 11.

“Both teams are so evenly matched,” Delle Donne said. “When you look at the numbers, it’s probably like something you’ve never seen in history.”

Seattle and Washington ended the season with identical 22-14 records and the Storm won the regular-season series 2-1 by an average of 5.3 points, which gave them homecourt advantage.

“We knew this was going to be a battle,” Stewart said. “We knew this series was going to be tough. That’s why homecourt advantage was so important. The fans really showed out tonight.”

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It had been 1,439 days since the Storm’s last playoff game in Seattle, a 75-73 win against the Mystics in the WNBA Finals against on Sept. 9, 2018.

The boisterous crowd of 8,917 at Climate Pledge Arena provided a deafening soundtrack that buoyed the Storm in the final minutes.

“It’s amazing to play here in Climate Pledge,” Stewart said. “We haven’t been back here since 2018. That’s the thing I remember most about those playoffs was walking out and the crowd erupting. I would hate to be on the other side of that.”

Delle Donne also gave props to the Climate Pledge crowd.

“They’re playing in an awesome arena,” she said. “You kind of have to pause for a little. This is fun. Like this was great. I love it here.”

Game 2 is Sunday afternoon in Seattle and Quinn anticipates another thrilling display considering the Mystics and Storm, who rank first and second respectively in fewest points allowed, combined to give up 169 points and neither team led by more than six points in the second half.

“If I was a fan and watching I would have enjoyed it,” Quinn said. “As a coach, my armpits were sweating.”

Note

  • Bird connected on two three-pointers Thursday for 100 in her playoff career. She’s one of four WNBA players to make 100 threes (Diana Taurasi, Becky Hammon and Maya Moore). 

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