Connecticut center Brionna Jones did just about anything she wanted early on against a formidable Storm frontline.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound center bullied and battered Natasha Howard, the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, inside while connecting on 8 of 10 shots in the first half to match her career scoring high.
“In the first half, we didn’t respect Jones,” coach Gary Kloppenburg said in a postgame Zoom teleconference. “She’s a really good low-post player and we just let her bury us down in there deep. She got some easy deep post-ups and she can finish.
“In the second half, we had to come out with a lot more physicality and we did that. We wanted to front her. We wanted to stay physical. We were going to bring another body down on her and dig her and trap her.”
The halftime adjustments worked as the Storm held Jones to two points the rest of the game and pulled away late for an 87-74 win Tuesday night at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
“The biggest difference was the fact that we made it really difficult for Jones,” said Breanna Stewart, who finished with a game-high 22 points on 8-for-16 shooting, five rebounds and five blocks. “Obviously, when she gets her feet in the paint it’s super tough to defend her because she’s strong. That’s what changed in the second half.”
Seattle fell behind 19-16 after the first period and was down 40-38 at halftime in large part because Jones tallied 18 points.
“Honestly, our defense was solid, but she just had 18 points in the first half,” Stewart said. “If you take that away, they had 22 points.”
Negating Jones in the second half added an extra layer of burden on Connecticut, which didn’t get much offense from DeWanna Bonner because Alysha Clark smothered the WNBA scoring leader.
Bonner, who entered the game averaging 27.5 points, finished with a season-low five points on 2-for-9 shooting in 31 minutes.
“AC is our lockdown defender,” said Jordin Canada, who made her second straight start in place of Sue Bird (bruised left knee) and had 14 points and six assists. “She guards the best player on every team and it showed tonight why she’s one of the best defensive players in the league. For her to lock down DeWanna Bonner was very huge for us.
“She does a lot for us and it goes unnoticed, but we notice. We’re happy to have her as a teammate. I know I wouldn’t want to be guarded by AC. I’m glad she’s on our team.”
Clark led the way defensively and had her best offensive performance of the season, with 13 points and three three-pointers.
Jewell Loyd added 12 points and Sami Whitcomb chipped a season-high 15 points off the bench.
The Storm’s offense also came alive in the second half when Seattle outscored Connecticut 49-34.
“We talked about it at halftime, our spacing wasn’t good,” said Whitcomb, who drained three three-pointers. “The ball was sticking and staying to one side. We were trying to move it a bit more. Get the ball in a few hands. Make them play defense a little longer.”
Down 51-49 late in the third period, Whitcomb made a three-pointer to put Seattle up by one and start a 12-2 run. Canada ended the period with a couple of free throws that gave the Storm a 61-53 lead.
Seattle continued to pull away from Connecticut and began the fourth with a 16-6 spurt. Clark, who entered the game connecting on 1 of 7 three-pointers, capped the run with her third three-pointer for a 77-58 lead.
The Storm improved to 4-1 while Connecticut, which received 15 points from Alyssa Thomas, fell to 0-5.
Bird, who is listed as day to day, isn’t expected to play this week when the Storm plays Atlanta on Thursday and Phoenix on Saturday.
“My guess is she’s probably out a couple of games until we get that calmed down,” Kloppenburg said.
The Storm is also without reserve guard Epiphanny Prince, who left the WNBA’s bubble for personal reasons.
— WNBA players wore black T-shirts that read “Vote Warnock” to games on Tuesday to support Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is challenging Atlanta Dream co-owner Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) for her Senate seat.
It was a visual rebuke of Loeffler, who objected to the league’s support of the Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName movements and advocated for players to add the American flag to their jerseys.
This season, players are wearing Breonna Taylor’s on their to bring awareness to the 26-year-old emergency medical technician who was killed in her home by Louisville police.
Sue Bird, who is the WNBA Players Association vice president, came up with the idea to oppose Loeffler with T-shirts.
“This was a situation where given what was said in regards to the owner of Atlanta, and how, basically, she came out against a lot of what the women in our league stand for, I think was emotionally tough for a lot of the women in our league to hear that,” Bird told ESPN. “But very quickly we started to realize that this was only happening for her political gain. This was something that she wanted. And the more noise we made, whether it was a tweet saying to get her out, that was just playing into her hands.
“I’m not some political strategist, but what I do know is that voting is important. And I think our league has always encouraged people to use their voices and to get out and vote.
“So, what a great way for us to get the word out about this man, and hopefully put him in Senate. And, if he’s in Senate, you know who’s not. And I’ll just leave it at that.”
The WNBA players received support from 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who tweeted “I am proud of these players.”
In a statement Tuesday night, Loeffler said she remains opposed to Black Lives Matter because of its “radical ideals and Marxist foundations,” according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
“This is just more proof that the out-of-control cancel culture wants to shut out anyone who disagrees with them,” Loeffler said. “It’s clear that the league is more concerned with playing politics than basketball, and I stand by what I wrote in June.”
Storm guard Jordin Canada expressed dismay at Loeffler’s comments.
“It’s bigger than basketball,” she said. “We’re more than athletes. To have someone in our league that doesn’t represent and support African-Americans, which is 80 percent of our league, it’s just disheartening.
“This is not about politics. … We’re going to continue to support Warnock and everything that he’s trying to do because we need Kelly out of there.”