By BENJAMIN STANDIG
The Associated Press
FAIRFAX, Va. — Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart fretted following the regular-season opener after the Seattle Storm lost at home to the Phoenix Mercury.
“We thought, ‘Oh, crap, what kind of year is this going to be?’” Bird reminisced.
The answer came nearly four months later with a championship.
Stewart led the Storm to their third WNBA title Wednesday night, scoring 30 points in a 98-82 victory over the Washington Mystics in Game 3 of the best-of-five series.
Natasha Howard added career-high 29 points and 14 rebounds for the Storm. Seattle won 26 games during the regular season — 11 more than the 2017 campaign — entered the playoffs as the No. 1 seed, and swept the finals.
Stewart was the league MVP and was selected the Finals MVP after averaging 25.6 points in the three games. She scored 17 points in the first half as the Storm raced to a 47-30 lead.
“Stewie was just amazing,” Storm coach Dan Hughes said. “She truly was the MVP of this league. She truly was the MVP of these Finals. God blessed me with an opportunity to coach her and I will be forever grateful.”
Bird, also a member of a Seattle’s championship teams in 2004 and 2010, was certainly appreciative of the title — and the growth of the Storm’s younger players. Seattle landed Jewell Loyd and Stewart, both All-Stars in 2018 with Bird, with the No. 1 overall picks in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
“Each (championship) is special in its own way, but this one is probably going to have a different meaning for me,” said the 37-year-old point guard who had 10 points and 10 assists. “There is probably no comparison to be honest. I didn’t know if I’d be playing at this point. Our team went through a rebuild and yes, I decided to stay. Once we got Stewie and Jewell, we knew we’d get to the other side, but how do you know you’re going to get to the other side this fast?”
The coach sensed something brewing early in his first year with the franchise. Following the Phoenix loss, Seattle won five in a row.
“I think this was our year,” Hughes said. “All year you could just see the escalation.”
Elena Delle Donne scored 23 points for the Mystics. Kristi Toliver had 22 points.
“Obviously, this finals didn’t go the way we wanted it. The great thing is we can still improve. We don’t feel like we peaked and this is it for us,” Delle Donne said.
Washington reached the Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Alysha Clark had 15 points for Seattle.
Washington battled Seattle and history. Since the league went to a best-of-five format in 2005, four teams trailed 0-2. Each lost Game 3. The Mystics joined that unwanted club. Poor perimeter shooting contributed. Washington finished 8 of 23 on 3-pointers in Game 3 and 11 for 60 (18.3) in the series.
Despite the misfires, Washington rallied from down 18 points to trailing 72-67 with 6:49 remaining. Starting with a Stewart 3-point play, Seattle countered with eight consecutive points and pulled away.
“We were up at halftime, but we knew D.C. was going to come back,” Stewart said. “It was how we countered that when things got close. That’s what really separated us again.”
This is likely just the beginning for the dynamic 24-year-old forward, who won the NCAA Championship during each of her four seasons at the University of Connecticut.
“It didn’t feel like my first WNBA finals closeout game,” the poised Stewart said.
Bird understands her career is nearing the end, even though she remains among the league’s best. One of the league’s most decorated players also grasps the impact of her latest triumph.
“This is probably going to be one of the most defining moments of my career,” Bird said.