After Jewell Loyd lofted a three-pointer in the second quarter, the Storm guard turned and trotted in the opposite direction before the ball splashed through the net.
The roar from the KeyArena crowd and the screams from the Seattle bench let her know the shot was good, while simultaneously signaling the end to her four-game shooting slump.
“It just felt really good, regardless of if it went in,” Loyd said. “That was when I knew it might be a special night.”
If Loyd, a 5-foot-10 All-Star guard, continues to shoot like she did Friday night, then the Storm might cruise to its third league title just as easily as it trounced the Washington Mystics 89-76 in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals in front of 11,486.
“When I’m not thinking, I’m at my best,” said Loyd, who connected on 9 of 12 shots and was 3 for 3 from behind the arc for a game-high-tying 23 points, five rebounds and three steals. “When you have the support of your teammates, friends back home and your family who is constantly telling you to trust yourself, it makes it a lot easier to go out there and be confident.”
Admittedly, Loyd had a miserable performance in the previous round against Phoenix. After scoring 23 points in a Game 1 semifinal, she connected on 9 of 36 shots, including 2 of 12 three-pointers in the next four games.
The cold shooting resulted in a fourth-quarter benching in a thrilling 94-84 win over Phoenix in Game 5 on Tuesday.
“If you watched Jewell all year, you knew it’s just a matter of time that she’s going to impact the game,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said. “She’s doing things across the team, not just scoring. She’s rebounding and assisting.
“From a defensive standpoint, she’s much, much more a pivotal part of what we do. So there’s a totality to it. As long as she’s bringing those other things out, I have absolutely no doubt that … the offense is also going to come along with it.”
Forward Natasha Howard led the Storm early while scoring 10 of her 19 points in the first quarter to give Seattle a 24-13 lead.
Then Loyd took over in the second quarter with a dazzling 4-for-4 display on perimeter shots, including two three-pointers and two step-back jumpers.
Loyd scored 10 points in the second for Seattle, which led 48-32 at halftime and was never seriously threatened again.
“The ups and downs she had from the last series, she knew we needed her and she wanted to play better,” said league MVP Breanna Stewart, who finished with 22 points and five assists. “Yeah, we made it to the Finals, but we need her. She’s one of the reasons why we got here.
“Tonight she was knocking down shots, but it was more than that. She was all over the place on defense and getting her hands in there and mucking it up. She wasn’t going to let one stat define her . Even if she went 0-for-10 she still would have had a good night because she was so active on defense.”
Loyd was at her best defensively in the third quarter when she leapt out of bounds into the courtside seats for a steal and redirected a Monique Currie pass to teammate Alysha Clark.
Clark then led a 2-on-1 fast break and dished to Loyd before Currie prevented a layup by knocking her to the floor with a hard foul.
Loyd’s ensuing free throws put Seattle ahead 70-44 with 2:53 left.
“What I’ve seen in Jewell from Year 1 to Year 4 is you know the bounce back will come,” said Storm guard Sue Bird, who had seven assists. “This isn’t going to be a 2-3 week thing. Not that it ever was, but early in her career the bounce back wouldn’t be like we saw tonight.
”She understands she had a rough series. She knows. We all know it. Everybody knows it. I’m sure people have been talking to her about it. … But I was pretty confident that she was going to come out and just be herself.”
The Storm went up by 27 points late in the third quarter and led 77-53 entering the fourth when Washington used a 14-5 run to cut its deficit to 16 points (83-67) with 5:42 left.
In the semifinals, Seattle often struggled in the fourth quarter to close out games.
Against a Mystics team that beat the Storm by 23 points in their last meeting, Seattle didn’t allow Washington to get any closer than 16 points before the starters left the game with three minutes left.
It was nearly a perfect game for the Storm, which had 23 assists on 35 baskets and shot 54.7 percent from the field.
“We got our butts kicked in every phase of the game,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. “The only bright spot probably for us tonight was our bench as a whole, and Ariel Atkins.”
The rookie forward led Washington with 23 points on 10-for-14 shooting. Meanwhile, Mystics All-Stars Elena Delle Donne (10 points) and Kristi Toliver (5) combined for 6-for-22 shooting.
“Excuses are for losers,” said five-time All-Star Delle Donne when asked about her left knee that she injured in Game 2 of the semis. “If I wanted to be 100 percent, I wouldn’t have come back. I knew coming into this thing I was going to have to figure out a different way to play.
“It might not be the same basketball I’ve been playing all season, but I still feel like I can impact this game. … We’ve got to be better and we’ll find a way.”
Game 2 of the best-of-five series is at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
It feels as if the Storm has a bigger lead than 1-0 after Friday’s lopsided win.
“Washington is not done and we know that,” Loyd said. “We learned from the last series that it’s more than one game. There’s going to be some ups and downs.
“We won this one, but we have to put this behind us and focus on the next one. That’s how you win a series.”
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