FAIRFAX, VA – When it comes to winning championships, few can match the success of Breanna Stewart. After winning four national championships in college, being named the Most Outstanding Player each time, Stewart led the Seattle Storm to the 2018 WNBA championship and was named Most Valuable Player of the Finals.
As expected, her numbers in the three-game sweep of the Washington Mystics were outstanding: 25.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.7 steals, 51.0 percent shooting from the field and 54.5 percent shooting from three. But it only tells part of the story.
Stewart got better with each game – 22 points in Game 1, 25 points in Game 2 and a game-high 30 points in Game 3 – as she was determined to close out this series on Wednesday at EagleBank Arena at George Mason University and not give the Mystics any hope of rallying.
“Just knowing that Game 3 was so important; obviously playing on the road is tough, but we knew we could close out this series and we wanted to do it today,” Stewart said. “We didn’t want to wait any longer and we wanted to bring the championship home.”
Hoisting the WNBA Finals trophy and being named Finals MVP capped off a brilliant season for the third-year pro. After losing a combined 39 games in her first two seasons, including a pair of single-elimination playoff losses, the perennial winner knew it was time for a change.
“I think coming into this season, she really just changed her mindset,” said Storm point guard Sue Bird. “She had goals, specific goals, and yeah, she had some individual ones, but I think she knew those individual goals, winning MVP, being dominant, or as dominant as possible, that was going to impact the team positively and probably lead us to where we are now.
“So, I think it just speaks to Stewie. Obviously the kid knows how to win. Even though it hadn’t been in the WNBA yet, she clearly knows what it takes, and sometimes it just takes a couple of years to really figure out yourself in this league because it’s a very tough league to play in, and now here she is. She’s figured it out. It’s probably going to get a little harder from here to be honest, but I think she’s ready for it.”
Stewart had not lost this much in her entire life and she was not about to get used to watching other teams celebrate at the end of the year while she watched. What happened on Wednesday night was a return to normalcy for Stewart, where she is celebrated as the best player on the best team in whatever level of competition she is in.
“Honestly, it didn’t feel like my first WNBA Finals close-out game,” she said. “I think the way I looked at it was just another game. One game leads us to what we’ve been working for for four months, and just having that mindset.”
She had her entire arsenal on display in the championship-clinching game. She did work inside, finishing post moves and getting to the basket for lay-ups; she did work in the mid-range, knocking down pull up jumpers as part of Seattle’s offensive flow; and she knocked down her first four 3-pointers, finishing the day 4-of-5 from beyond the arc as she was able to stretch the Washington defense.
There are few players with Stewart’s level of versatility and when she is scoring in all three phases, she is simply impossible to stop. It helped that she had her frontcourt partner Natasha Howard having the game of her life as well. Howard, who came to Seattle in an offseason trade with Minnesota, won her second straight WNBA title on Wednesday after finishing with 29 points and 15 rebounds, while shooting 11-of-14 from the field and knocking down both of her 3-pointers. Howard is the third player to win back-to-back WNBA titles with different teams.
The Mystics had no answers for Stewart and Howard and that was before Alysha Clark added 15 points and nine rebounds and Bird notched a double-double with 10 points and 10 assists. Her final assist came in the closing minute with the outcome already in hand, as she dribbled left and found a cutting Stewart coming across the lane with a look-away pass that Stewart finished a running right-handed layup.
That basket put the Storm up by 19 points – their biggest lead of the game – with 28 seconds remaining. The Storm led by 14 points heading into fourth quarter, but the Mystics would not go away quietly. They cut the lead down to eight points in less than two minutes, which forced a Storm timeout and time to regroup.
With a veteran point guard in Bird and the MVP in Stewart, there was no panic from the Storm. They stopped the bleeding and held off the Mystics’ final push before pulling away in the closing minutes.
“We knew at halftime when we were up whatever it was, 16, 15, whatever it was [17-point lead, 47-30], that they were going to make a run, they were going to make a push,” said Stewart. “They’re not in the Finals for no reason. Obviously D.C. is a great team, and what they have going is going to be exciting for them in the future.
“But when it got to eight, we kind of — we were calm. We had a calm presence about us. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Sue told us in the huddle that it wasn’t going to be easy basically, and it was just how we reacted, how we countered that, and we knew — we got to this point for a reason, also, and it was Game 3 of the Finals, and we were going home with a championship.”
Stewart had the ball in her hands in the final seconds of the game, nonchalantly tossing it ahead as the buzzer sounded before turning around and embracing Bird to celebrate the title. As she won her first WNBA title, she did not let out a huge scream or jump up and down in unbridled joy. Instead, she smiled, hugged her point guard and celebrated with her teammates before being named Finals MVP, taking team photos and heading to the locker room for some champagne.
There was a sense of calm surrounding Stewart after the game. She was back in familiar territory, back to the normal feeling of winning at the highest level. There was joy in her face and in her voice as she talked about the game, the season and the championship after the game. But there was a bigger sense that Stewart was where she belonged. And after two years of losing, she was ready to win her first title and make sure that it isn’t her last.
She became the sixth player in WNBA history to be named regular season and Finals MVP in the same year, joining last year’s winner Sylvia Fowles (2017), former Storm star Lauren Jackson (2010), Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi (2009) and a pair of legends in Lisa Leslie (2001) and Cynthia Cooper (1997, 1998).
All of the players on that list have won multiple WNBA titles. And with Stewart just turning 24 a few weeks ago, she is likely destined for the same. Because winning championships is what Breanna Stewart does.
“This is probably one of the best things I’ve ever done,” said Stewart of winning her first title. “The WNBA is the best league in the world and to be able to be so successful so soon … obviously a lot of credit goes to my teammates, Sue and our coaching staff. But we had a goal coming into this year, we knew what to do and how to get better and we just continue to push one another.”