Storm debut among memorable milestones for Breanna Stewart

Labelled “the LeBron James of women’s basketball” by Kelsey Plum, an All-American with the Washington Huskies, the Seattle Storm are hoping that Breanna Stewart can emerge as a franchise player and restore the championship hopes for a loyal fan base. In addition to her scoring prowess, Stewart is also a solid playmaker, as evidenced by her 300 career blocks and 300 career assists, the only NCAA player to do so. As a side note, she was also the only competitor to be recognized as the Final Four most outstanding player four times.
As Stewart made her preseason debut with the Storm, gracing the courts of the WNBA for the first-time ever, there was a tinge of irony. Former Huskies teammate Moriah Jefferson, the second pick overall in this year’s WNBA Draft was opposing Stewart, as a member of the Phoenix Mercury.

The WNBA Draft was a watershed moment for the league and the Huskies. With the draft launching the celebration of the WNBA’s 20th season, it was only fitting that the Draft was held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. Holding the first overall pick for the second consecutive year (the Storm selected Jewell Loyd in 2015), the Storm did not surprise, selecting Stewart. Of note, Stewart became the fifth UConn alum taken first overall in WNBA Draft history. The others in this remarkable class include Maya Moore (2011), Tina Charles (2010), Diana Taurasi (2004) and Sue Bird (2002).

Following Stewart, San Antonio grabbed Jefferson Moriah Jefferson while Morgan Tuck went third overall to the Connecticut Sun, allowing her to stay in close proximity to her Huskies glories. It marked the first time in WNBA draft history (and in professional sports) that three players from the same school represented the top three picks. As a side note, the 2002 WNBA Draft saw Huskies players selected first, second, fourth and sixth overall.

This titanic trio also hold the rare distinction of having won the Final Four in every season of their NCAA careers, another historic first. It was a fitting end to their glorious collegiate careers, propelling the Huskies into one of the greatest dynasties in American sporting history. Except for the likes of Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton with the UCLA Bruins, Stewart may be the most accomplished basketball player in the history of NCAA basketball, capturing three straight Player of the Year Awards, an unprecedented achievement.
In her WNBA debut, Stewart managed 29 minutes of playing time, logging 11 points and a solid eight rebounds, although Phoenix that would prevail. With 3,271 fans at Key Arena witnessing her debut, it was Stewart’s first loss on a basketball court since November 28, 2014.

While the Storm had a solid first half, a 36-28 lead evaporated as the Mercury enjoyed an 11-0 run. Loyd would tie the score at 39-39 at halftime. Considering that Sue Bird was inactive in the second half, the Mercury outscored the Storm in both quarters (20-14 in the third, 22-20 in the fourth), grabbing the W. Compounding matters was a lack of on-court chemistry between Loyd and Stewart, a key challenge for head coach Jenny Boucek to overcome. The leap to the professional ranks became a sobering reality, as winning, something so easily attained at the University of Connecticut could not be taken for granted in the WNBA.

One of the benefits of joining the Storm is the fact that Stewart is joined by another Huskies legend. Entering her 15th WNBA season, Sue Bird led the Storm to WNBA titles in 2004 and 2010, complemented by 10 straight postseason berths. While both represent Huskies pride with the Storm, the two will also get the opportunity to be teammates twice before the WNBA season expires.

In addition to being part of the Seattle Storm’s roster, both were named to the US national team that shall compete at the 2016 Rio Summer Games. Having already won three gold medals in Summer Games play, Bird will be looking for a fourth, as this will likely be the final Games of her storied career.

While Rio represents the first Summer Games for Stewart, she will be joined by a couple of other celebrated first-timers, including Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner. At the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Stewart donned the US jersey in a silver medal effort, suffering an upset to fellow Husky Kia Nurse and the host Canadian team in an emotional gold medal match.

Gold is a strong possibility to be the color of choice in the aftermath of Rio for Stewart et al. With Huskies coach Geno Auriemma serving as the US head coach (he was also the bench boss at London 2012), a second championship in 2016 for Auriemma and Stewart would only add to the legendary legacies that the two have forged in four fantastic years with the Huskies.

Meanwhile, Stewart’s focus shall be on bringing the Storm back into contention. Despite opening her WNBA career with a loss, Stewart has the talent and the tenacity to ensure that the wins will outnumber the losses. A rematch with the Mercury on Mother’s Day shall prove to be a key test for Stewart.

Another element of intrigue in the preseason shall include a contest the followigtn week against the Los Angeles Sparks. Of note, the Sparks selected Syracuse University star Brianna Butler in the Draft. Not only did Stewart grow up in North Syracuse, but her fourth straight Final Four title came against Syracuse. Undoubtedly, emotions will run high for both.

Becky Hammon inducted into the New York Liberty Ring of Honor

In the aftermath of an historic NBA Summer League championship with the San Antonio Spurs, Becky Hammon’s career went full circle. As her WNBA roots can be traced back to the New York Liberty, where her playing career began, the club welcomed her on August 3 as they hosted Sue Bird and the Seattle Storm.

Honored by the Liberty during an emotional halftime ceremony (which saw the Liberty hold a 36-35 lead against the Storm), Hammon graciously acknowledged the fans and the organization, recognizing the role that the Liberty played in the beginning of her professional basketball odyssey. Among the gifts that were presented to Hammon, she was the recipient of flowers, a commemorative ring and a painting that was actually created during the ceremony.

During her rookie campaign, Hammon would compete in the 1999 WNBA Finals against the Houston Comets. Before her career with the Liberty reached its end in 2006, two more Finals appearances followed. Second overall in franchise history in both games played and three-pointers, she currently sits third in franchise scoring.

In 2007, Hammon would join the San Antonio Silver Starz of the WNBA’s Western Conference, also appearing with the Russian roster at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games. After her WNBA career came to an end due to injury in 2014, she extended her career with a historic appointment as a member of Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff. Serving with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, Hammon became the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history.

Defeating the Storm by a 78-62 mark, led by Tina Charles’ 29 points, the 10,682 fans in attendance witnessed history more than once. In addition to Hammon’s honor, Storm superstar Sue Bird made her presence felt. After the Liberty went on a 13-0 run to begin the third period, Bird nailed a three pointer at the 4:47 mark. The three pointer made Bird the first woman in WNBA history to score 5,000 career points and dish out 2,000 career assist. Coincidentally, Bird’s former teammate, Swin Cash (who both played together) with the University of Connecticut and the Storm, was on the floor for the Liberty when the historic basket was made.

United States grabs gold at milestone-filled FIBA Women’s Worlds in Turkey

A common theme throughout the 2014 FIBA Women’s World Championships was milestones. The medal round was filled with plenty of unique accomplishments that added to the excitement of the event. Heading into the gold medal game for the first-time ever was Spain.

Competing against the favored United States, both clubs entered the gold medal game with identical 5-0 undefeated marks. Fenerbahce Arena in Istanbul would be the setting for another dominant American performance.
Maya Moore would set the tone early on as she contributed eight points as the US emerged with a 15-5 advantage. As a side note, Spanish head coach Lucas Mondelo has coached Moore’s club team in China, Shanxi Xing Rui, winning the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association title in 2012-13.

By halftime, Moore logged 16 points while Diana Taurasi recorded seven assists as the United States enjoyed a 48-29 lead. With Spanish scoring leader Sancho Lyttle having already picked up three fouls, it only added to their woes. Despite their best efforts, the Spaniards would fall to the US in a 77-64 victory.

In the gold medal game, Sancho Lyttle led all Spanish players with 16 points and 11 rebounds, along with 4 steals and 1 block. The top player statistically for the USA was Tina Charles, who logged 10 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists for an efficiency rating of +19. Of note, Maya Moore would lead all players in gold medal game scoring with 18 points. In addition, she would post 4 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal as the US captured its fourth gold medal in the last five attempts.

On her way to the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, Maya Moore ranked fourth overall in points per game with 15.3. Lyttle of Spain emerged as one of the elite competitors in the event, as she led all players with 18.2 points per game. She would also show great versatility by posting a tournament-best 3.3 steals per game.

In WNBA circles, Lyttle is a competitor with the Atlanta Dream. Like many of her peers, she spends her WNBA off-seasons playing abroad. Having won four Euroleague titles in her distinguished career, her most recent win came with Galatasaray in 2014.

Statistically, American players were peppered throughout the leader boards. Diana Taurasi averaged 4.5 assists per game, tied for third overall with Katerina Bartonova of Russia and Cuba’s Oyanasis Gelis. For Taurasi, it was her third career medal for the United States. She would join fellow Americans Tamika Catchings, Delisha Milton-Jones, Katie Smith, Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley (who was a coach for Team USA in 2014), Jennifer Azzi, Teresa Edwards and Katrina McClain with three career medals.

Brittney Griner of the WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury ranked second in blocks per game with 2.0, while LaToya Pringle of Turkey led all players with 2.7. Like Griner, Pringle was also a first round pick of the Phoenix Mercury. She would be selected by the club in the 2008 edition of the WNBA Draft. Her last WNBA appearance came in 2012 with the Washington Mystics. Pringle was a key factor in host country Turkey finishing with a 4-2 mark, plus appearing in the bronze medal game to Australia.

One of the feel-good stories of the event belonged to Australia’s Penny Taylor. One of the statistical leaders in assists per game, Taylor emerged as a key contributor in the Mercury’s road to the 2014 WNBA title victory over the Chicago Sky. After knee surgery sidelined her for most of 2013, her return to the club near the end of the 2014 regular season was essential. Of note, it was Taylor’s third WNBA title, having also won titles in 2007 and 2009 (also with the Mercury).

Helping Australia to a bronze medal, it was Taylor’s third FIBA medal. She would help Australia win its first-ever gold medal in 2006, while earning another bronze in 2002. A first-round pick of the Cleveland Rockers in the 2001 WNBA, she was selected first overall by the Mercury in the 2004 dispersal draft.

In addition, Taylor was named to the 2014 FIBA World Championship All-Star Five. She was joined by Lyttle and Alba Torrens from Spain. Maya Moore and Brittney Griner were the two Americans named. American captain Sue Bird became the player with the most medals in the history of the FIBA Women’s Worlds with four. In her career, Bird earned three medals (2002, 2010, 2014) and one bronze medal (2006).