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Liberty spoil party for Storm

New York's Becky Hammon races down the court ahead of Seattle's Janel Burse on Saturday at the Spokane Arena. 
 (Amanda Smith / The Spokesman-Review)
New York's Becky Hammon races down the court ahead of Seattle's Janel Burse on Saturday at the Spokane Arena. (Amanda Smith / The Spokesman-Review)

SPOKANE – Came late, checked out early.

No, not the crowd. The Seattle Storm.

The Storm’s Spokane experiment – the first WNBA regular-season game to be taken out of a primary market – was a modest success, with 4,527 finding their way into the Spokane Arena on Saturday night without the help of one season ticket presold or much in the way of promotion.

But the basketball part was a bust – the Storm getting off to a grim start, and then scoring just three points in the game’s final 5:20 and falling 67-62 to the New York Liberty, who had come to Spokane reeling from six straight losses.

And center Lauren Jackson’s pronouncement after the Storm’s second straight home loss – well, home away from home – couldn’t have been more pointed.

“We need to work on our (half-court) offense,” said Jackson. “We’re a wreck right now.”

That may not have been apparent to the crowd, which at least approached Storm chief operating officer Karen Bryant’s wish of 5,000 for this unprecedented stroke. Surely the long line of admirers who waited more than a half hour after the game for Jackson and guard Sue Bird to emerge from the dressing room and sign autographs didn’t have any complaints.

“It was great to play in Spokane and try to expand the fan base,” said Bird. “Hopefully we won some people over – even though we lost.”

Lost, and melted down a little in the process.

Trailing 59-55 with 5:23 to play, the Liberty not only got every important defensive stop but saw point guard Becky Hammon slice up the Storm with nine of her 15 points and a big assist on a fast break to DeTrina White.

The Storm didn’t get another field goal until the issue was virtually decided, with 24 seconds left.

“If we’d won tonight, we’d have had to gut it out and find away – it wouldn’t have been because we’d played well,” said Bird. “That happens and you’ve got to fight through those times.”

The Liberty (7-7) confounded Seattle with a standard-issue 2-3 zone, the only remarkable feature of which was its ingenuity in denying Jackson the ball. The league’s Most Valuable Player didn’t get her first touch until 3 1/2 minutes had passed, and didn’t get another until coach Anne Donovan called a timeout 6 minutes into the game and drew up something especially for her star center.

Even then, Jackson didn’t get in the scorebook – on a free throw – until 9:06 remained in the first half and the Storm already trailing 24-11. By then, Seattle had missed 16 of 21 shots and Donovan knew Jackson, who scored just 12 points, and her team were in for a long night.

“It’s a tough loss, no doubt,” Donovan said. “What was tough was that New York was able to change what we do well. They took away our transition game and took away our ability to get the ball to Lauren.”

That general tenor continued until the final 6 minutes of the first half, when Jackson finally popped in a couple of 3-pointers and opened things up inside for Kamila Vodichkova, who had the last six points of the half – and a team-high 15 on the night – as Seattle closed a 12-point deficit to 29-28.

The momentum carried into the second half, with the Storm building a 41-33 lead, but when New York coach Richie Adubato – who earned his 100th WNBA win – reverted back to the zone, Seattle reverted back to its earlier haste. Jackson went for a stretch of more than 17 minutes during which she got off just a single shot; instead, the Storm fired away from beyond the 3-point arc, making just 3 of 17, with guard Betty Lennox being particularly indiscriminate.

“You can’t get things done in a hurry,” insisted Donovan, whose team dropped to 8-4. “You can’t go right to Lauren on set plays, and we needed to take better shots than we did. We were 3 for 17 from 3, and that tells me working the ball inside still needs to be our mentality whether it’s against zone or man-to-man.”

The Storm’s shooting woes – they hit just 38 percent, with Bird going 3 of 11 and Lennox 6 of 18 – might have been attributed to playing in a foreign arena, though Donovan noted merely that “it’s like a road game, and you have to adjust.”

The Liberty certainly did. After losing a 24-point blowout to the Storm in New York a week and a half ago and surrendering 19 offensive rebounds to Seattle in the process, the Liberty held the Storm to what would have been a franchise record-low of one until the Storm desperately chased down three more in the final minute of play.

“Maybe this is a wake-up call for us,” Jackson allowed.

As for spreading the gospel of the WNBA to another precinct, Donovan’s enthusiasm was obviously tempered by the loss.

“Hopefully, a different set of people were able to come out and see our basketball and enjoyed what they saw,” she said, “and maybe at least they’ll keep tabs on us from across the state.”