Postgame Notebook - Storm 64, Minnesota 54
Storm Headed to Western Conference Finals
2004 has been a season of firsts for the Seattle Storm, but they don't get any bigger than this - the franchise's first playoff series victory and first trip to the Western Conference Finals with a 2-0 sweep of the Minnesota Lynx. In just the fifth year of the Storm's existence, the team will play for the right to go on to the WNBA Finals. The Storm is the first Western Conference expansion team and the first of the 2000 expansion teams to advance to the Conference Finals.
Player of the Game: Tully Bevilaqua. Bevilaqua never played more than 20 minutes during the regular season and topped out at 22 last year, but was forced to play 27 minutes in Bird's absence. Not a problem for the Aussie, who merely scored nine points on 4-for-6 shooting, grabbed a season-high five rebounds, handed out four assists, pilfered a season-high four steals and, oh, yeah, did not turn the ball over once in those 27 minutes. Not bad for her second career playoff game.
Reserve of the Game: Alicia Thompson. With Bevilaqua getting the big honor, we'll turn to a non-Killer Bs member of the Storm's bench. The team was desperate for scoring punch in the first half, and Thompson was instant offense with five points in seven minutes. She finished with 10, her first time in double-figures all season.
Play of the Night: Betty Lennox was off on a three-point try with 13:16 left to play in the game, but Jackson swooped in from the free-throw line and perfectly timed her advance, pulling down the offensive rebound and going back up for an easy layup to tie the game at 41-all.
Turning point: After Vanessa Hayden checked into the game at the 7:43 mark and the Storm turned up the heat defensively, it was all Seattle.
A minute and a half later, the Storm saw Betty Lennox, the team's other starting guard and de facto backup to Tully Bevilaqua at the point in Bird's absence, pick up her third foul. It was a situation in which the Storm could have easily folded, but while Minnesota went up as many as four points, the Storm never lost contact and was tied at halftime.
Seattle would blow open a tight second half down the stretch, going on a 14-1 run after trailing 48-45 with 9:47 to play. The Storm built its lead as large as 13 points on a Bevilaqua three-pointer inside the final minute and hung on for a 64-54 win.
The run was catalyzed by a play that was symbolic of the entire game. Bevilaqua was caught up trying to defend Minnesota rookie Amber Jacobs, who hit a three to give the Lynx the 48-45 lead, and injured her leg. Still hobbling, Bevilaqua led her team down court and eventually hit a 17-foot jumper to get the Storm within one.
Like her team, Bevilaqua wasn't always pretty on this evening, but she more than got the job done. And as a result, the Lynx go home while the Storm plays on.
Even after Bevilaqua's bucket, both teams were scoreless until a Storm shot-clock violation brought up the under-8-minute media timeout with 7:43 left on the clock and the home team trailing by one. It would prove to be a critical 90 seconds.
On the Storm side, Coach Anne Donovan exhorted her team to finish the game strong, telling them to value every possession the remainder of the game on both sides of the court. Meanwhile, Minnesota Coach Suzie McConnell Serio substituted in rookie center Vanessa Hayden, who had yet to play in the second half. It - and a later move to go big with a frontcourt of Hayden and starting posts Nicole Ohlde and Tamika Williams - was the kind of risk for which McConnell Serio won Coach of the Year honors, but on this night, it backfired. In four minutes of action, Hayden missed four shots and the Storm outscored Minnesota 8-1 to take command of the game.
(It wasn't just Hayden, of course; the Storm made seven of its final 10 shots and Minnesota stayed cold after Hayden went out, going over seven minutes in total without a field goal.)
ESPN.com's Nancy Lieberman made Hayden against Storm center Kamila Vodichkova her matchup to watch before the series, and the Storm dominated. Hayden finished the series 2-for-7 from the field for four points and committed three turnovers. More telling, in Hayden's 16 minutes of action, the Lynx was outscored 33-15. Without Hayden on the court, Minnesota was outscored by just four points.
As for the Storm's extra effort down the stretch, Ohlde said it best.
"They just stepped up their game and we didnít respond to it," said the Minnesota rookie. "They hit big shots and made key stops, and we didnít on the other end. They jumped out on us and they did the things necessary to get a win."
Awaiting an Opponent
As was the case during the last weekend of the regular season, the Storm knows it's moving on but doesn't know yet who its opponent will be. The Storm will take on the winner of the Los Angeles-Sacramento series, determined by tomorrow night's deciding Game 3 in Los Angeles.
Donovan was indecisive post-game about which team she'd prefer to play.
"You always want home-court advantage, so in that sense it would be great to play Sacramento," Donovan said. "But for me, LA is still the team that holds the Western Conference crown. So from a competitive standpoint, thatís pretty important to me."
There is no indecision as to the fact that Donovan respects both teams and expected their series to go three games.
"Thereís no surprise in that series," Donovan said, pointing to "always underrated" Yolanda Griffith's play since the Olympics as a key for the Monarchs. "If anyone was going to run L.A. like that, it was Sac."
Which team wins may not matter as much as that both will have to muster the energy for three games while the Storm is resting.
"Iím loving watching that series," Donovan said. "Iím loving watching them get all tired and worn out and run each other to death."
Lennox Passed Over
There was disappointment in the Storm camp that Lennox, who went from being a reserve in Cleveland a year ago to the Storm's third-leading scorer and the leading rebounder amongst guards in the WNBA this season, finished third in Most Improved Player voting with eight votes. Connecticut's Wendy Palmer-Daniel and Indiana guard Kelly Miller, with nine votes apiece, shared the award in one of the closest decisions in league history.
Lennox easily won ESPN.com's fan voting for Most Improved Player, capturing more than 50% of votes in a poll without Miller even listed as a candidate.
"She was able to focus in, find a home, settle here and flourish," said Donovan. "I do think that Betty would have been a great candidate for that."
Donovan was pleased to see Miller, who she drafted in Charlotte, be rewarded for her breakout season.
"I do give Kelly Miller props - I think that her finding a new position, a lot of minutes and making the most of it in Indiana, she had a nice season," Donovan said.