Mercury vs Storm: A prelude to WNBL and Opals action

A quartet of Opals will go head-to-head in the WNBA this weekend, as they look ahead to Tokyo 2020.

On Saturday (Australian time), two of the hottest teams in the WNBA will do battle in a game with a distinct Australian flavour.

Led by Australian Opals head coach Sandy Brondello and boasting Melburnian Alanna Smith, the fifth ranked Phoenix Mercury will take on the Seattle Storm, a team boasting Aussie duo Sami Whitcomb and Ezi Magbegor, but also the best record in the WNBA. It is a showdown that promises a playoff-like contest, and one that can be enjoyed by everyone back home in Australia, as it will be broadcast live on Saturday from 12pm AEST on SBS Viceland.

For Smith (Adelaide Lightning), Whitcomb (Perth Lynx) and Magbegor (Melbourne Boomers), the importance of the WNBA season is an important step for them in not only preparing for the 2020/21 WNBL season, but also the Opals’ Tokyo Olympic Games.

“We have three massive years coming up for the Opals with the Olympics pushed back and World Cup in Sydney in 2022,” shared Whitcomb who has been providing a spark for the Storm off the bench ahead of her return to the WNBL next season. “There is such incredible depth among both the Opals and the Gems, so playing well in the WNBA and continuing to try and develop is very important to me.

“It’s the leading league in the world and just a great opportunity to challenge myself, improve, and give myself the best opportunity to go to Tokyo.”

Smith shared similar thinking, advising that playing against the best players in the world was the best preparation you could have for what lay ahead.

“I would say playing in the WNBA is one of the best way to prepare you because you’re playing against and with some of the best players in the world,” explained Smith who has signed to play with the Adelaide Lightning next season. “Not only are you constantly learning but you’re able to build confidence knowing that you can compete against the best of the best.”

Opals duo Whitcomb and Magbegor have played important roles in helping the Storm compile the best record in the WNBA (17-3). Both have been key rotation players in coming off the bench, with 21-year-old rookie Magbegor impressing on a championship favourite team.

The Melbourne Boomers star centre has averaged 6.4 points on 56.8% shooting with 2.3 rebounds in playing 12.8 minutes per game, more than holding her own against the world’s best despite her youth. Whitcomb has also been rock solid in playing 16.3 minutes per game in providing a spark off the bench, adding 8.4 points 2.2 rebounds and 2 assists per game while shooting 40% from three-point territory.

The Storm also boast former Southside Flyers star centre Mercedes Russell who is making valuable contributions off the bench. However the bulk of Seattle’s scoring power is delivered by MVP candidate Breanna Stewart (19.7ppg & 8.3rpg), who amassed 23 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists in a last-start 107-95 win over the Dallas Wings, a victory that saw her team clinch a top 2 playoff seed and double-bye. With stars such as Jewell Lloyd and Sue Bird turning out, the Storm is currently on a six game winning streak and are clearly the team to beat - although the Mercury is rising.

Phoenix enter the game against Seattle on a high following a thrilling 100-95 overtime victory against the Connecticut Sun. Star guard Skyler Diggins-Smith drained a miraculous 35-foot buzzer-beater at the end of regulation before the Mercury held off the Sun in the extra period. Diggins-Smith would score a season-high 33 points in the win, while veteran superstar and MVP contender Diana Taurasi poured in 28 points.

While Opals star Smith (6.1ppg & 3.6rpg) has missed the last two games due to an ankle injury that is likely to place her on ice ahead of the playoffs, the Mercury remain loaded with recent WNBL players that Australian fans would be familiar with. Former Adelaide Lightning stars Brianna Turner (a career-high 21 rebounds in the win against the Sun) and Nia Coffey have been regular contributors, while former Melbourne Boomers standout Sophie Cunningham has also been impressing this season.

The victory over the Sun was the Mercury’s seventh win in their last eight games, with Brondello’s team finding form at the business end of the season despite battling injuries to key players, and Brittney Griner not with the team due to personal reasons.

While the Mercury close out their regular season against the Storm riding a wave of confidence, Seattle are also in great form and have already accounted for their rivals once this season, a 74-68 win on 8 August. That win came about from big contributions from all their stars, and despite a 20-point outing by the Mercury’s Griner. A lot has changed in that time, with Phoenix turning around their season.

The Mercury and Storm are two of the most familiar WNBA teams down under given their long association with some of Australia’s finest talents. Penny Taylor was a star with the Mercury and helped lead them to three championships, while Lauren Jackson dominated the league for the Storm, winning two championships and earning three league MVP awards.

With some of Australia’s finest young players now making their own mark with the Mercury and Storm, the baton has well and truly changed hands, and the future looks extremely bright.

Watch Live | 12 September 2020, 12:00pm on SBS Viceland