LAS VEGAS — It was just one game, but what a game. 

The WNBA semifinals series opener was better than advertised as the No. 4 seed Storm and No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces traded improbable shots for 40 minutes Sunday afternoon in front of a playoff-record, sold-out crowd of 9,944 at Michelob Ultra Arena. 

At the end, Jewell Loyd took over and scored the final six points for Seattle, including a long jumper with 34.6 seconds left, to deliver a 76-73 upset victory and a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series. 

“I’ve grown up this season and this year,” Loyd said. “This is my eighth year and I should be growing as a player and a person and I feel like I’ve been doing that this year.  

“It helps when you have really good teammates. It helps because they give you confidence. You believe in them and they believe in you. That’s the biggest thing. Each of us have to stay confident in what we do and what we bring to the team.” 

Loyd has developed into one of the WNBA’s greatest closers who performs best in the final moments when the stakes are the highest. 

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Eight days ago, the four-time WNBA All-Star guard began the playoffs with a redemptive fourth-quarter performance, including a clutch basket with 42.7 seconds left to beat the Washington Mystics in Game 1 of the first-round series. 

“That last series she grew up a lot and had the same kind of cadence and rhythm today,” coach Noelle Quinn said. “She started off good, had a little lull and ended with a lot of firepower at the end. She showed some poise and made great reads.  

“She got trapped early and handled it tremendously today. She continues to grow up before our eyes. That last series helped with that experience and how to handle that. She continues to make big plays for us because she’s a great player.” 

The pregame hype focused on the leading WNBA MVP candidates Breanna Stewart and A’ja Wilson, but this game, especially in the final minutes, was all about Loyd and Chelsea Gray, who went back and forth exchanging highlight baskets. 

In their last meeting, Loyd tallied a career-high 38 points, but Gray, who had 33 points, got the last laugh and a 109-100 win in the regular-season finale on Aug. 7. 

Two weeks later, Loyd and Gray were at it again with a playoff game hanging in the balance. 

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“I’ve worked a lot in the offseason for these moments,” said Loyd, who scored a game-high 26 points on 10-for-19 shooting. “I like to create for myself and create for others. It takes me back to playing at the park, being able to create your shots and just have fun.” 

The Storm controlled the game until Riquna Williams’ three-pointer from the corner gave the Aces their first lead (65-64) with 6:15 remaining. 

Las Vegas was ahead 67-64 when Loyd went to work and scored 10 of the last 12 points for Seattle. 

“The last time we were here against Vegas they had a big third-quarter run,” Quinn said. “Just knowing that’s going to happen in this environment. To respond, you’ve got to stay poised. You’ve got to stay resilient. You’ve got to continue to execute and stay the course. I thought we did that well today.” 

Down 71-70, Loyd drained a three-pointer to go up 73-71 with 1:45 left. 

After Gray, who had a team-high 21 points, tied it 73-73 on the ensuing possession, Loyd put Seattle up again with a free throw. 

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Then Kelsey Plum lost the ball out of bounds — one of Las Vegas’ 11 turnovers — before Loyd delivered a dagger and drained a contested jumper from 20 feet for the final basket. 

“Nothing,” Loyd said when asked what goes through her mind in clutch moments. “I’m better when I’m not thinking. I’m just trying to get to my spots and rise up. That’s where my mind is in those situations. I know that I’ve repped those situations a lot. I feel good to rise up and I can live with that result.” 

Las Vegas had chances to force overtime, but Plum misfired on a couple of three-pointers and the former Washington Huskies star finished with 20 points on 8-for-23 shooting. 

“We knew this was going to be tough,” said forward Breanna Stewart, referring to Seattle’s 1-3 record against Las Vegas during the regular season. “These games against Vegas have been tough (during) the regular season and previous seasons. And we have a lot of respect for their players and what they do. We knew that coming in here to their home, wanted to steal one. We wanted to get one and get our momentum going in the right direction. We did that and now we focus on Game 2.” 

It’s inaccurate to say the Storm stole Game 1, considering they led for more than 36 minutes, held Las Vegas’ league-leading scoring offense to 17 points fewer than its average and outscored the Aces 16-0 in fast-break points. 

More to the point, Seattle wrestled away home-court advantage because its stars did what they do. 

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Loyd and Stewart (24 points, six rebounds, three blocks and two assists) were brilliant while combining for 50 points.  

Tina Charles struggled offensively while converting 6 of 18 shots for 13 points, but she set a Storm playoff record with 18 rebounds, including five on the offensive glass. 

“Tina is a bucket,” Quinn said. “We know she’s a prolific scorer in our league, but one of our deficiencies before she came to our team was rebounding. She’s done an excellent job of cleaning boards on the defensive end. That helps our defense tremendously. Eighteen is amazing. That’s effort. That’s championship level effort.” 

And Sue Bird offset a dismal 1-for-6 shooting display with 12 assists. 

“We have confidence in everyone on this team,” Loyd said in reference to Stephanie Talbot, who started in place of Gabby Williams (concussion) and finished with seven points and six rebounds. 

Aces coach Becky Hammon said: “I thought we played tight, especially in the first quarter. We played like the world was on our shoulders.” 

Game 2 is Wednesday in Las Vegas before the series shifts to Seattle for Game 3. 

“It’s important to not be satisfied at all,” Quinn said. “The job is not done. We did nothing but attain our goal, but that’s not the end goal. We have to stay focused. Look at the film, adjust and get ready for Game 2.” 

Note

  • Bird’s 12 assists moved her past Lindsay Whalen to become the WNBA’s all-time playoff assist leader with 342. Bird also had zero turnovers and is the third WNBA player to finish with at least 12 assists and no turnovers in a playoff game, joining Cynthia Cooper and Diana Taurasi. 

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