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Storm focused on defending Breanna Stewart as Liberty star returns to Seattle on Tuesday

Breanna Stewart #30 of the New York Liberty runs on the court in the first quarter of a preseason game against the Las Vegas Aces at Michelob ULTRA Arena on May 13, 2023, in Las Vegas, Nevada.   (Tribune News Service)
Percy Allen Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Breanna Stewart is back in Seattle — and she brought her championship-or-bust super team, the New York Liberty, with her to play her winless former team, the Storm.

“I know there’s plenty of buzz around Seattle about the game,” Storm forward Ezi Magbegor said. “For us as a team, we’re just taking each game day by day. … I didn’t have this game circled or anything like that, but we knew this game was coming up pretty early in the schedule.

“Stewie is a great player in this league and she’s done some great things for this team. Any time a player like that comes home, in a sense, it’s a big deal, especially for the fans.”

The last time Stewart played at Climate Pledge Arena, the 28-year-old superstar tied a WNBA playoff scoring record with 42 points in Game 4 of the semifinals during a thrilling 97-92 loss to Las Vegas on Sept. 7, 2022. That ended Seattle’s season and subsequently capped Stewart’s brilliant seven-year tenure with the team that drafted her No. 1 overall in 2016.

The events over the last nine months preceding her anticipated Seattle return at 6 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN2 have been well documented, including the Liberty’s lavish courtship that included renting an 80-foot tour boat in Bosporus, Turkey, Stewart’s cryptic tweets and her subtle jab at the Storm 10 days ago that could impact her reception from Seattle fans.

None of it has surprised Storm star Jewell Loyd, who met Stewart when they were teenagers playing on the USA Basketball under-17 team.

Since then, they’ve been college rivals — Stewart at the University of Connecticut and Loyd at Notre Dame — Team USA teammates and the pillars of the Storm’s Big Three, including retired Sue Bird, responsible for the franchise’s league championships in 2018 and 2020.

“It’s kind of crazy when you have two people who have been friends for a long time,” said the 29-year-old Loyd, who was selected by the Storm No. 1 overall in the 2015 WNBA draft. “I’ve known her since high school. We kind of grew up in the basketball world together.”

When asked why their pairing was so successful, Loyd said: “We both want to reach the same goal. We both want to win championships. We both want to have fun. We have the same passion for the game of basketball. And when you have that, it just gelled.”

Loyd has no animosity toward Stewart for leaving the Storm and joining a stacked Liberty team that also added 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones and four-time WNBA All-Star Courtney Vandersloot to a squad that already included former All-Stars Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney.

“It was always going to be a hard decision,” Magbegor said. “I think Stewie did what was best for her and her family. Change is different and it’s big, but it can be good sometimes. It was obviously a shock to a lot of people. I’m just happy for her. She’s been a big part of my WNBA career and she’ll always be a friend.”

Loyd added: “When you know someone, then you understand where they’re trying to go. At the end of the day, New York is home for her. That area is special to her. We travel a lot and we’re not always around our families and grandparents and stuff.

“Obviously, I didn’t know until it actually happened and you always hold out a little hope, but at the same time I had a feeling she was leaving. Stewie, she deserves everything she can get. And the main thing is she’s happy and I want her to be happy.”

Happiness seemingly came at a cost for Stewart, who accepted a discounted one-year, $180,000 deal with the cash-strapped Liberty that makes her the fourth-highest paid player on the team, according to Her Hoop Stats.

After losing 80-64 in its opener, New York (2-1) won its next two games by 17 and 16 points, respectively.

Meanwhile, the Storm (0-2) seemingly bounced back from an embarrassing 105-64 defeat against Las Vegas in their opener and pushed Dallas to the final seconds before falling 95-91 last Friday.

“New York is kind of like Vegas; they have a team of All-Stars, and that’s what makes Stewie even more dangerous,” said Loyd, who is tied with Stewart for second in the league in scoring while averaging 26.0 points. “So, your defensive scheme just needs to be solid. You’ve got to live with some stuff. Stewie’s going to make tough shots.

“That’s the thing when you’re guarding great players, you just have to make them take tough shots every time, then live with the results. If she hits 10 step-back half-court shots, then that’s what it is. But our goal is to make everyone on that team take tough shots.”

Last week, Stewart carried New York to a 90-73 victory over the Indiana Fever with a career-high 45 points that set a franchise record.

When asked during a postgame interview how it feels to play in front of family and friends in her home state, Stewart, a Syracuse, N.Y., native, told the Barclays Center fans: “It feels like I made the right decision.”

Loyd took no umbrage with the apparent verbal swipe from Stewart and focused on the 6-foot-4 forward’s spectacular performance against the Fever.

“That’s Stewie,” Loyd said. “I texted her afterward and said she should have had 50. It was an easy 45. When you have someone who can score so easily and so effortlessly from all three tiers, it’s tough. She should have had 50.”

So how do you stop her?

“In this league with a player like that, you’ve got to bring all types of pressure,” center Mercedes Russell said. “You can’t just do one thing the whole game because, obviously, they’re going get used to it and make adjustments. So, it’s constant adjustments.

“She’s going to be in different situations. Obviously, on the block and at the three-point line. Maybe on a ball screen. Just defending those different actions throughout the game to apply more pressure to her. Make her take difficult shots. Don’t just let her get an open transition three. You need pressure. You need bodies and you need size.”