By Nick Patterson
EVERETT — The Seattle Storm may not have had the services of their biggest stars, but they still managed to make a good first impression.
The defending WNBA champions made their Angel of the Winds Arena debut Wednesday night when they took on the Phoenix Mercury in their preseason opener, and the short-handed Storm fell 87-84 in a game that was close throughout.
The Storm are without a permanent home both this season and next as KeyArena in Seattle is demolished and a new arena is built, and Angel of the Winds will be the site of five of the team’s home games during the regular season. On Wednesday the Storm played before a modest but enthusiastic crowd of fans clad in Storm gear and banging yellow thundersticks together.
And although the Storm couldn’t treat those fans to a win, they put up a good fight despite their big names sitting this one out.
“I think it was good,” Seattle’s Mercedes Russell, who had 15 points and seven rebounds to tie for the team lead in both categories, said about the game. “I think everybody on our team got a chance to get their feet wet. We’ve been in training camp for a little over a week, so it was nice to play against someone other than ourselves, and just get that feel back of running up and down the court.
“(The arena) was cold because of the hockey,” Russell said about her first impressions of Angel of the Winds. “But it’s nice, it’s a nice arena, it’s not too far from us.”
“I thought we still got a great crowd,” added Jordin Canada, who chipped in with 13 points and five assists for the Storm. “The fans were awesome, they’re always awesome.”
The game was decided in the fourth quarter when the teams were deep into their benches. Seattle’s Presley Hudson seemed to have forced overtime by hitting a long 3-pointer to knot it at 84-84 with 25.1 seconds remaining. But Phoenix’s Sophie Cunningham drained a kickout 3 with 3.4 seconds to go to win it for the Mercury.
Natasha Howard joined Russell in scoring 15 points to lead the Storm. Brittney Griner and DeWanna Bonner each had 15 for the Mercury.
The Storm are, of course, playing this season without superstar forward Breanna Stewart. Stewart, the reigning WNBA MVP, suffered a ruptured right Achilles while playing for Dynamo Kursk in the EuroLeague championship in April and will miss the entire season.
Indeed, Seattle played without any of its premier players Wednesday. Eleven-time all-star and starting point guard Sue Bird was in attendance but didn’t dress as she was rested, and all-star shooting guard Jewell Lloyd wasn’t with the team for personal reasons. Head coach Dan Hughes was also absent, having undergone surgery to remove a cancerous tumor in his digestive tract Tuesday. There is no timetable for Hughes’ return.
“We wanted to take a look at all those young players and have more evaluations because we have more decisions coming up personnel-wise in the next week-and-a-half,” Storm assistant coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “Overall we’re pretty pleased, I thought we played very hard. You never know in an exhibition game how it’s going to go, it’s the first time out for a lot of the young players. But I thought we really competed, and it was an exciting finish.”
Seattle stayed right with Phoenix the entire game despite being outmanned — the Mercury had the services of two-thirds of its big three in towering 6-foot-9 center Griner and agile forward Bonner, while the Storm were limited to one starter in Howard and a host of role players. Every time it looked like Phoenix was going to create separation the Storm got a stop and a bucket to keep it close, and it was a competitive game throughout.
At one point of the fourth Seattle looked like it was in control, using a 10-0 run to build a 76-71 advantage. But back-to-back 3-pointers by Phoenix’s Alanna Smith and Stephanie Talbot gave the Mercury an 83-81 lead and set up the finale.
The Storm have one more preseason game, Friday at Los Angeles, before the season opener on May 25 at Angel of the Winds.
In addition to Stewart, Bird and Lloyd, Seattle was without guards Alysha Clark and Sami Whitcomb. Both are still playing with their French teams, Clark with Lyon and Whitcomb with BLMA, which are facing one another in the French League finals. … Phoenix was without nine-time WNBA all-star guard Diana Taurasi, the third member of the team’s big three, who was scratched because of a back injury. Starting forward Sancho Lyttle (knee) and reserve forward Camille Little (ankle) were also out injured.