Early sharpshooting from Sue Bird and an impressive performance from newly acquired center Ann Wauters weren’t enough to prevent the Seattle Storm from blowing a 21-point second-half lead to lose the season opener 72-66 to the Los Angeles Sparks Friday night at Key Arena.
LA outscored the Storm 30-10 in the fourth quarter. Bird attributed the late offensive struggles to a Seattle starting five that hasn’t had time to jell.
“Some of those shot clock violations were us not running the offense the way we should,” Bird said. “Sometimes when you’re with new players you go, ‘You take it.’ I definitely saw that. Everyone needs to be more aggressive.”
The 9,886 in attendance had a lot to cheer early as Wauters dropped in 10 points in the game’s first six minutes. Bird chipped in with five points and three assists. No. 2 overall draft pick Shekinna Stricklen came off the bench and promptly knocked down a pair of jumpers as the Storm cruised to a 24 -10 lead to end the first quarter.
Seattle maintained its advantage over the next 20 minutes, as Wauters continued to control the paint by knocking down seven of 10 shots and pulling down six rebounds. Tina Thompson pitched in with four treys to stop LA.
“Ann Wauters showed some good signs,” said Storm coach Brian Agler. “She and Tina both showed some very good signs. We’re just going to build on that.”
Wauters led all Seattle scorers with 17 points.
Comfortably leading 56-42 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Sparks’ increased defensive pressure led to a prolonged Seattle scoring drought. The result was seven fourth quarter turnovers and a lead that was cut to one with five minutes remaining. The Storm finished with 22 giveaways.
“It was a combination of them picking up their defense a little bit, getting up into us, us turning the ball over and them scoring off those turnovers,” said Bird, who had 15 points, six rebounds and six assists. “It seemed to happen one after another for that three- or four-minute span. I don’t want to sound corny but it really knocked the wind out of us.”
With just under two minutes left and tied at 66, Wauters split a pair of free throws. On the ensuing possession, LA’s Kristi Toliver drove the baseline for a reverse bucket. After the Storm couldn’t convert, Toliver silenced a raucous crowd with a three-pointer that softly hit the front of the rim and the backboard before going in. LA’s point guard had 25 points.
“I needed that bounce because I was losing my legs,” Tolliver said.
Down four, Storm forward Camille Little made things interesting when she cut the lead to one by drawing the foul on a put-back. With Seattle forced to foul, Toliver capped the night by knocking down a pair of free throws before Bird’s desperation three-point attempt was partially blocked.
Agler mixed a touch disgust with a subtle hint of optimism after his team played three impressive quarters before imploding.
“I hope that’s as bad as we’ll be in the fourth quarter. We don’t want to see that again,” he said. “I’m hoping that we can be better than we were in the first quarter, and be consistent. We’ll have to develop some toughness both mentally and physically.”