Game 1 in the WNBA Finals went to the Storm and Alysha Clark, who held Washington Mystics star Kristi Toliver well below her scoring average. Game 2 is 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
Sly, a cute 7½-year old chihuahua, scurried across the basketball court soaking in the attention and affection from dozens of onlookers at the end of the Storm’s practice Saturday afternoon.
“He’s such a ham,” said Storm forward Alysha Clark, who’s taken care of Sly since he was a pup. “He’s always the center of the attention.”
Not so for Clark, who tends to go unnoticed on a team filled with stars including MVP Breanna Stewart, the living legend Sue Bird, All-Star Jewell Loyd and Natasha Howard, who won the league’s Most Improved Player of the Year award.
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Even the Storm’s backups, such as Sami Whitcomb and rookie Jordin Canada, have garnered reputations as crowd favorites.
Then there’s Clark, Seattle’s unheralded defensive stopper who shut down Washington Mystics star forward Kristi Toliver and led a dominant defensive performance for an 89-76 win in the WNBA Finals opener on Friday.
“AC sets the tone on defense,” Bird said. “If you want to say I’m the offensive captain, then yeah she’s the defensive captain. She has the hardest matchup every single night. She’s extremely smart defensively, and what you come to learn about AC is she can handle a lot of information.
“She watches a ton of film. … And what that does is it gives her a wealth of knowledge about the players in this league. It’s so hard to stop anybody one-on-one because the players are too good. Especially, when you make it to this far in the playoffs. But AC can do that.”
In Game 1, Clark, a 5-foot-11 forward, held Toliver to just 2-of-11 shooting for five points — nine below her playoffs average.
“She’s a tough matchup,” said Toliver who scored 19 and 22 points respectively in her previous two games. “She’s extremely physical. She’s physically stronger than I am.
“But there’s ways around that. I think we’ll exploit it as the series goes on. I wouldn’t be surprised if they throw some different people (at me) whether it’s Jewell or two people. They’re going to try to keep it hard and not consistent.”
In the semifinals, Clark surrendered 25 and 28 points in Games 1 and 2 respectively to Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi. However, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer averaged just 13.7 points in the last three games of the series.
“Guarding Taurasi was extremely hard,” Clark said. “She’s one of those players that you make her take tough shots. And if she hits tough shots, you keep going because she’s a phenomenal player.
“And that’s the same with KT. Just staying in her space and make her take tough shots because once she gets going she’s hard to slow down.”
With Toliver muted and five-time All-Star forward Elena Delle Donne scoring just 10 points on 4-of-11 shooting, the Mystics had difficulty keeping pace with the Storm and didn’t offer much resistance in Game 1.
Seattle, which led by 27 points, had more fast break points (18-0) and more points in the paint (50-32).
“They did what they were supposed to do,” Toliver said. “They were supposed to win Game 1. They were supposed to protect their home court.
“For us, it’s a matter of bouncing back and getting back to our identity and who we are and certainly not panicking because in this series there’s a lot of games to be played.”
Game 2 in the best-of-five is 12:30 p.m. Sunday at KeyArena.
The Toliver-Clark matchup figures to loom large in the championship round just as Clark’s one-on-one battle against Taurasi impacted the semis.
“She brings to the table a defensive presence both intellectually and physically,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said. “I’m amazed that she’s not recognized more nationally. It just floors me.
“But within our team, everybody gets it. Not only does she seek to have great understanding and communication about what we’re doing and what we’re dealing with, but she also physically is tough-minded and the combination gives us a defensive presence that every team needs.”
Clark, a seven-year veteran, hasn’t always been a defensive menace. At Middle Tennessee State she led the NCAA in scoring as junior (27.5) in 2008-09 and a senior (28.3) in 2009-10.
“In the beginning I wasn’t needed to score and (coaches) were like if you’re going to play, you need to guard somebody,” said Clark, who averaged 7.4 points and 3.5 rebounds during the regular season. “Over the years I just switched my mindset and having coaches say you can be a really great defender and that would help prolong your career.”
Clark not only negated Toliver on Friday, she also finished with eight points, five rebounds, five assists and a steal.
“Her size allows her to guard a lot of different people,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. “They can use her to switch, and she’s embraced that role that she can be a disrupter. Her size also allows her to be a really good rebounder, which she also was in college.”
Hughes, who twice cut Clark when he was at San Antonio, has been impressed with her ability to play for weeks with a nagging hamstring injury.
“She’s tough in every sense of the word,” he said. “If I’m looking at a 50-50 ball, it’s not 50-50 in her mind. She wins those battles.”