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COVID-depleted Storm drop second straight to Mercury, missing Breanna Stewart

UPDATED: Sat., May 14, 2022

By Percy Allen Seattle Times

In search of a silver lining to mitigate the COVID-19-related absences that’s trimmed the Storm’s roster, Noelle Quinn offered this: “At least it’s happening now and not late in the season.”

Despite being short-handed once again, Seattle pushed the Phoenix Mercury to the final moments in the second of two straight games between the Western Conference rivals.

However, the Storm came up short at the end and lost its third straight game, a 69-64 defeat on Saturday in front of 12,453 at Climate Pledge Arena.

The loss drops Seattle to 1-3 for it’s the worst start since 2016 when the Storm finished 16-18 during Breanna Stewart’s rookie year.

“Continue to work, fight and get better,” Quinn said when asked her postgame message to the team. “Understanding that we have players playing in different roles. Players who just got here, dealing with other issues (and) other circumstances.

“No excuses. We can grow from this. … By no means is it time to push the panic button. We were in the game against an amazing team without one of your best players on the floor.”

Quinn noted the Storm was missing roughly 30 points without Stewart and backup guard Epiphanny Prince who are in health and safety protocols and missed their second straight game.

In addition, Seattle has been without center Mercedes Russell this season due to an undisclosed non-basketball injury.

“We have yet to play one singe game with our entire unit,” Quinn said.

The absences forced Quinn to rely on a small lineup in which Stephanie Talbot, a 6-foot-2 forward, defended 6-4 center Tina Charles, who demolished Seattle on Wednesday while tallying 22 points on 8-for-13 shooting and 11 rebounds to lead Phoenix to a 97-77 win.

This time Talbot provided the first line of defense against the 8-time WNBA All-Star while 6-4 center Ezi Magbegor repeatedly double teamed Charles in the post.

The defensive tactic worked to near perfection considering Phoenix shot 37.7% from the field and attempted just eight free throws. On Wednesday, the Mercury was 57.1% on field goals and converted 13 of 17 at the line.

Charles had just four points – 14 fewer than her season average – on 2-for-7 shooting and was a non-factor.

Meanwhile, Magbegor flirted with a triple double and finished with eight points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks, which was the most by a WNBA player this season and one shy of tying the Storm record held by fellow Aussie Lauren Jackson.

“I made more of a focus to be there defensively,” Magbegor said. “Without a couple of our key players, just focusing on defense. Focusing on helping my team out.”

It was a marvelous defensive performance, but Quinn acknowledged it’s difficult to win when the offense isn’t working. The last time the Storm won scoring at least 64 points was Aug. 16, 2017.

Seattle is averaging just 71.7 points in the past three games.

“At the end of the day, we were in great position to win,” Quinn said. “Our defense was steady, but we just have find ways to execute on the other end of the court.”

The Storm trailed 34-32 at the break and briefly took a 46-42 lead in the third quarter thanks to Jewell Loyd who scored nine of her game-high 26 points in the period.

But it wasn’t enough to abate a barrage of 3-pointers from Diana Taurasi, who dropped six threes for 24 points. The Mercury star received offensive support from Skylar Diggins-Smith (14 points) and Diamond DeShields (11) while Loyd was mostly a one-woman show.

Talbot earned postgame praise from Quinn after collecting 14 rebounds in 38 minutes – both game highs – but she connected on just three of 11 shots for eight points. Gabby Williams struggled offensively once again and tallied seven points on 2-for-8 shooting.

And it was a miserable outing for Sue Bird who finished with just two points. She shot 1 for 11 from the floor, including 0 for 8 on 3-pointers, which snapped a string of 31 straight games with a 3.

The Storm shot 31.2% and its offensive troubles were glaring at the end when the score was tied 59-59 with 3:57 left.

Seattle converted just one of its last seven shots. During the decisive stretch, Taurasi drained a three-pointer that unlocked the tie and put Phoenix up for good. Minutes later, she knocked down another 3 to go up 67-61 with 1:01 left.

“The ball found me in some good spots,” said Taurasi who scored 10 of the Mercury’s 20 points in the fourth quarter. “I just had a little space and let it go. Luckily, they went in. That was that whole game. Who was going to make that last run?”

Thanks to Loyd’s three-pointer and Phoenix’s late-game miscues, the Storm had several chances to force overtime. However, Seattle committed two turnovers in the final 27 seconds and Bird missed a long 3-point attempt with 6.3 seconds left.

“We had enough opportunities to win the game,” Quinn said. “It didn’t fall on that one shot (by Bird). We put ourselves in a good position, we just have to capitalize and finish.”

Quinn was optimistic Stewart and Prince would return for Wednesday’s matchup against Chicago while Russell is “progressing,” but still not ready to make her season debut.

The Storm, which is 10th in the standings, has seven straight home games and would like to use this stretch to build continuity and collect a few wins.

“We have a couple of new faces,” Loyd said. “Obviously, we’re not at full strength. We’re not our whole team yet. … We have this time to be home and practice. That’s perfect for us. The season is not over. We’re just getting started.”

Quinn added: “We’re going through our growing pains right now and our adversity right now, but check us out in a couple of months and see where we’re at.”

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