SEATTLE – Between receiving their championship rings, unveiling the second title banner in franchise history and honoring what the Seattle Storm accomplished in 2010, there were plenty of chances for distraction.
From the first day of training camp, Seattle coach Brian Agler cautioned about the 2011 home opener. With this veteran group, it turned out not to be a concern.
Sue Bird scored 13 points and handed out 10 assists, Camille Little led Seattle with 18 points and the defending WNBA champion Storm opened the 2011 season with a 78-71 win over of the Phoenix Mercury on Saturday.
“It was a lot today. One of those things where you wouldn’t change it but definitely a lot,” Bird said. “A lot of emotion. … You’re going back and forth. It can be a challenge to stay focused, but we’re a mature group.”
And the Storm were a group that didn’t need Lauren Jackson at her best to dispatch Phoenix for the eighth straight time. Jackson added 15 points and seven rebounds, but had just three points and one shot attempt at halftime as Phoenix did everything it could to keep the ball away from the three-time league MVP.
That opened the door for Little, who made 8 of 13 shots and grabbed nine rebounds.
“That’s our job as role players to step up when it’s our time. That’s what I was trying to do,” Little said.
Diana Taurasi did her best to make Saturday’s celebration uncomfortable, despite spending most of the game in foul trouble. Phoenix’s star led the Mercury with 31 points, including 11 in the closing minutes as Phoenix trimmed a 19-point deficit down to five with 16 seconds left.
But Taurasi was hesitant to pick up her sixth foul and Swin Cash scored an uncontested layup to close out Seattle’s 18th straight regular-season victory at home.
“We did a pretty good job in certain areas on the court. As a collective group, we didn’t finish plays here and there. That’s what it takes to beat teams on the road,” Taurasi said. “At this level, it’s whether you’re mentally strong enough to execute as a group. We showed we can do it. Just have to try and do it for a longer period of time.”
Seattle’s six returning members from last year’s title team received their championship rings in an elaborate pregame ceremony that took most of 20 minutes and was capped by the unveiling of the second championship banner in team history. Seattle also won the title in 2004, when Bird and Jackson were still in the infancy of their careers.
It took six years, but they finally added another crown. And with the addition of veteran Katie Smith in the offseason, Seattle is again considered the team to beat. Smith scored eight points in her Seattle debut, including a pair of key 3-pointers in the first half.
The Storm looked pretty strong in the opener, despite some sloppiness. Seattle controlled the glass, outrebounded Phoenix 38-28 and outscored the Mercury 46-32 in the paint.
And much of that came with Jackson as a nonfactor on offense for the first 12 minutes as Phoenix tried to deny Jackson touches. She eventually warmed up and made 4 of 9 shots and all six of her free throws.
“I just made a point not to get frustrated today,” Jackson said. “It just got to a point where they can stop me from scoring, but they can’t stop everybody else. For me, I’m going to have to battle it. I don’t need to score all the time.”
Little received a scare in the fourth quarter when she collapsed under the Phoenix basket and grabbed her right knee, but was able to walk off the court under her own power. Agler said Little would be day-to-day with a knee sprain.
Taurasi made 11 of 20 shots and was Phoenix’s only offense for stretches of the first half, despite having three fouls just 15 seconds into the second quarter.
Penny Taylor added 13 points and Candice Dupree scored 12 for Phoenix.
“We didn’t execute that well,” Phoenix coach Corey Gaines said. “Down the stretch we did in the fourth quarter, but before that we didn’t.”