BRADENTON, Fla. — The Seattle Storm's lead down to two with a quarter left, Breanna Stewart took over.
The big-game player scored the first 11 points of the fourth quarter and finished with 37 to help the Storm beat the Las Vegas Aces 93-80 on Friday night in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals.
"I’m excited for the big moment and the big stage. I expect to be here," Stewart said. "Been here whether its college, WNBA or USA continuing to embrace that moment and take advantage of it. This is why I play basketball. This is why I play to have big games to help my team in big moments."
Jewell Loyd added 28 points and Sue Bird had a WNBA playoff-record 16 assists. Bird had 10 assists in the first half to also break that playoff record. Game 2 of the best-of-five series is Sunday.
Stewart added 15 rebounds and four blocks. She was a point short of the WNBA Finals record set by Angel McCoughtry.
With Seattle holding a two-point lead heading into the fourth quarter after a huge Las Vegas rally, Stewart took over.
She scored the first 11 points of the period to restore a double-digit advantage and finished with 15 in the quarter. The 2018 MVP, who missed last season with a torn Achilles' tendon, hit three 3-pointers in the game-changing burst.
"She got that look in her eyes that she’ll take over," Seattle coach Gary Kloppenburg said. "Hit some 3s, got inside got to the line. it was fabulous down the stretch.
"We kind of lost our focus in the third quarter. got into a halfcourt game. picked their defense up. we didn’t respond in that third quarter and let them all the way back in. proud of the way we refocused and regrouped and solid in that fourth quarter and got a run going to stretch it out for the win.
McCoughtry scored 20 points to lead Las Vegas, which was playing in the WNBA Finals for the first time since the franchise moved to the Nevada city three years ago. The team was in the finals in 2008 when it was located in San Antonio. A'ja Wilson, the league's MVP, added 19 points.
The Aces also lost the first game of their semifinal series to Connecticut before winning in five games.
"We just got to buckle down and lock in from the start,' Wilson said. "There's no guarantee this series is the exact same. Now we see the looks we were getting and got to knock those down."
Seattle is trying to become the third team to win four titles, joining Houston and Minnesota. The Storm were champions in 2004, 2010 and 2018.
The Storm trailed 34-31 with 6:26 left in the second quarter before going on a 26-6 run to close the half. Stewart and Loyd combined for 17 points during that spurt as Seattle scored the first 14 points in the burst.
Seattle increased the lead to 19 to start the third quarter, but the Aces rallied with a huge run of their own to tie it at 67 just before the end of the quarter.
"We came out flat, worked so hard to come back into the game it took to a lot out of us," Aces coach Bill Laimbeer said.
Bird broke the playoff assists record of 14 she held with Courtney Vandersloot of Chicago. Eight players had reached 11 assists in a finals game before Bird's record performance. She also set her own career-best for assists regular season and the playoffs.
"I think Stewie and Jewell were pretty much on fire," Bird said. "The way our team plays and the offense was constructed dates back to when Jenny Boucek was our coach. We move it in a way to create opportunity as a point guard trying to find the open player. Assists is a two-person thing and those two played amazing."
Bird had the top-selling jersey in the WNBA this season, the league announced earlier Friday. It's the first time in her career that the Storm guard led the list.
"It’s pretty cool, not going to lie. Dawned on me we have some new WNBA fans," Bird said. "I've been here so long, you got that jersey 10-11-12 years ago. Maybe it’s a sign new people are interested in the league and they are coping those jerseys and it’s pretty cool."
Wilson was sixth on the list and Stewart seventh. The Storm were the overall leader as far as popularity in merchandise. The Aces were fourth on the list
Both teams will be without key reserves in the finals. Dearica Hamby, the WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year, injured her knee in the semifinals against Connecticut and is not expected to play in the championship series. Seattle sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb left the bubble to be with her wife as she gives birth to the couple’s first child.