The Replacements

Storm fans are naturally concerned when Tully Bevilaqua and Rita Williams play extended minutes. It's nothing against the two players, not at all, but instead the fact that the extra run for the Storm's tag-team backup point guard duo means that All-Star starter Sue Bird is suffering again from the knee injury that has plagued her all season. When Bird is out, the Storm can be confident in the experience it still has at the point guard position. Together, Bevilaqua and Williams have started 161 games in their WNBA careers. In ways almost as different as their backgrounds, both players get the job done.

Bevilaqua, a native of Australia, has always been known for her defense. At just 5-7, Bevilaqua hounds opposing guards as they attempt to bring the ball upcourt, harassing them all the way. Known as "terrier" around the league, she's drawn the nickname "bulldog" from Storm fans - and both are definitely meant as compliments. (“Oh, for sure,” Bevilaqua answers when asked whether she takes them the same way.) The 5-6 Williams, from Connecticut, was one of the WNBA’s highest-scoring point guards during her two years as a starter for the Indiana Fever. So it is that the Storm has an offense-defense “platoon” coming off the bench.

Bevilaqua in her element – forcing a jump ball.
Gregory Shamus/WNBAE/Getty
After a year in junior college, Williams transferred to the University of Connecticut, where she developed into a starter and was named second-team All-Big East and Most Outstanding Player of the Big East tournament her senior year. After the season, Williams was selected in the second round of the WNBA Draft by the expansion Washington Mystics. Williams split time at the point during her rookie season and was second on Washington in assists, playing regularly off the bench during her second season.

Williams would not get her big break, however, until the 2000 Expansion Draft. The Indiana Fever selected Williams with the 17th pick and the Fever’s Interim Coach – none other than Anne Donovan – made Williams her starting point guard. Williams took advantage of the opportunity to establish herself as a WNBA starter, finishing second on the Fever by averaging 11.0 points per game and leading the team with 3.2 assists per game and 2.4 steals per game (good for third in the WNBA).

Williams and Donovan had what the former terms “a great relationship”. “That’s why when my agent was like, ‘Do you want to get to Seattle?’ I was ecstatic, because we had a great relationship on and off the court,” Williams recalls. “It wasn’t just basketball – ‘Practice is over, everybody go home’. You could talk to her about anything.”

Donovan moved on after the 2000 season, taking the head job in Charlotte, but Williams continued to flourish with the Fever. Williams averaged career highs of 11.9 points and 3.6 assists per game, as well as finishing second in the WNBA with 2.3 steals per game. For her efforts, Williams was rewarded with a spot in the 2001 WNBA All-Star Game, becoming the first Fever player to be so honored.

The 2002 season was not so kind to Williams. She struggled to find her jumpshot, making just 29% of her shots and 25% of her threes in 20 games with Indiana. Niele Ivey replaced Williams in the starting lineup, though she continued to play heavy minutes off the bench, and her numbers declined across the board. Midway through the season, Williams was dealt by Indiana to the Houston Comets. She played sparingly, and by this year’s training camp she knew there was a chance she could be traded. The deal came just two days before the start of the season, May 20, with the Storm acquiring Williams for a third-round pick in next year’s Draft.

Like Williams, Bevilaqua got her first real chance in the WNBA with a 2000 expansion team. Bevilaqua had spent 12 games with the Cleveland Rockers in 1998 and had played in Australia, winning the WNBL’s Robyn Maher Medal as best defensive player during the 1999-00 season, but she found a WNBA home in Portland. Assigned to the Fire as a free agent, Bevilaqua became the team’s starting point guard, starting all 63 games she played (out of 64) over the Fire’s first two seasons of existence.

Never known for her offense, Bevilaqua averaged just 4.8 and 4.9 points per game during the two seasons. But she led the Fire with 3.3 assists per game in the 2001 season and ranked 13th in the WNBA in that category while enhancing her defensive reputation. Her 1.9 steals per game in 2001 were sixth in the league (behind Williams, amongst others). With the Fire adding players, Bevilaqua found herself out of the starting lineup when she returned from her off-season team in Hungary. Shortly, however, Bevilaqua returned to the starting lineup and sparked a six-game winning streak that helped catapult Portland into the playoff race with the Storm. Her 41.0% shooting and 41.7% mark from three-point range were both the best of her career.

Williams has been an offensive spark off the bench.
Bill Baptist/WNBAE/Getty
At season’s end, Bevilaqua found herself without a team, a disappointing – and unexpected – blow. “We all thought that we would see each other again,” she recalls. “It was tough because you didn’t really get to say goodbye to everybody. That was the toughest part.” Bevilaqua was able to stay in the Pacific Northwest, with the Storm pursuing her as a free agent. “When Seattle did call and show interest, I was very happy because, obviously, I knew some of the people,” Bevilaqua says. “Having (fellow Australians) Lauren (Jackson) and then hearing that Sandy (Brondello) was also being sought after, I was very happy to accept this offer.”

More than two-thirds of the way through their first season in Seattle, both players say they like the situation. “I’ve enjoyed it,” Williams says. “We’re in fourth place right now. We’re trying to get back to second and take over first, possibly catch up to L.A.” Bevilaqua echoes her teammate’s comments. “I’ve loved it here,” she says. “I think Seattle’s great and my teammates have been very welcoming.” Bevilaqua in particular has seemed to connect with the KeyArena crowd, drawing a loud cheer whenever she comes into the game and begins playing her trademark defense.

As a result of their sharing time as backup guards, both Bevilaqua and Williams have seen less minutes than they had become accustomed to while playing regularly. To Bevilaqua, it doesn’t really matter how much she plays. “I’ve never come into this league expecting to play x number of minutes or be a starter,” she says. “It has no bearing on my mentality at all.” Williams, who started to make the adjustment in Houston, understands that each situation in the WNBA is unique. “Each team is different, each coach is different,” she explains. “Each system is different. I’m just trying to find my place in the system and flourish in it.”

Because of Bird’s occasional injury problems, her backups have seen extended minutes at times and flourished in them. Twice this season, Bevilaqua has been called into road games at Phoenix and Charlotte early when Bird was knocked out briefly. In both games, she served to spark the team, knocking down a pair of threes against the Mercury and picking up four steals (and adding five points) against the Sting as the Storm ended up winning. “I hadn’t really thought of it,” Bevilaqua maintains of trying to step up as a scorer in Bird’s absence. “I suppose in those circumstances, obviously Sue’s a scorer on this team,” she does say.

To Williams – who had a season-high five assists when Bird played just three minutes against Minnesota last month – the entire team has to step up when Bird is out, not her or any other one player. “I think the special thing with this team is that not one person has to step up, everybody has the capability for stepping up and filling that void when Sue’s not there,” Williams says.

Of course, Williams and Bevilaqua are valuable off the bench as well, and they put that fact on display on July 31 against Charlotte. The duo led a Storm bench that finished with 29 points and was crucial in a 69-54 Storm victory. Williams had five points in the first half and two steals. Bevilaqua – who said earlier in the day at shootaround, “Hopefully I’ll start knocking down a few more shots. ... Hopefully it will happen soon.” – had a huge game, scoring a career-high 14 points in just 12 minutes, making four of five field goal attempts and a pair of three-pointers. Games like that leave little doubt that the Storm is in good hands even when Bird is on the bench.