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May 21, 2010 at 2:15 PM

News and notes from Storm practice

Willingham.jpgThe spotlight will be on Storm free agent Le’coe Willingham on Saturday as she’s expected to be presented with her 2009 championship ring. She was a starter for Phoenix, averaging 8.2 points and 4.4 boards in the 11-game postseason run.
Willingham, a seven-year vet, became expendable to the team due to salary cap constraints, however. GM Ann Meyers-Drysdale said Phoenix needed to retain F Penny Taylor and looked to keep restricted free agent G Cappie Pondexter while re-signing PG Temeka Johnson. It was hard to juggle with the $775,000 cap.
“We hated to lose her, she’ll do great things for (Seattle),” Meyers-Drysdale said.
Willingham, a 6-foot post, was first off the bench in the Storm’s opening two wins — the first due to foul trouble. She’s averaged 12.5 minutes, making the most impact on the defensive end and with chemistry, not minding a return to a reserve role for the first time in her career since 2005.
The Mercury, which defeated Los Angeles by one on May 15, revealed their championship banner. The roster from the 2009 title team is inscribed along the boarder with Willingham’s displayed on a side panel.
“Phoenix is a place that’s always going to be dear to me in my heart,” said Willingham, who played two seasons for the Mercury. “They gave me an opportunity to showcase what I was able to do on the court. I will always be appreciative to Coach (Corey) Gaines and Annie Meyers.
“I was able to be a part of something special there and built memories that will last forever. So, yeah, it’s a little emotional going back. However, on the other side of it, I’m going back to do a job.”
Storm coach Brian Agler said there was little he could do to help Willingham (pictured right by the WNBA) through the process. Every player – whether going to their former college site (Sue Bird/Connecticut) or former team pro team (Becky Hammon/NewYork) – gets jacked up. In Bird’s case, so much that they’re ineffective on the court.
“I’m sure they’ll do it (give Willingham the ring) right before the game so they can try to distract her,” Agler said. “It’s always difficult to go back and play your first game where you just played. I have not seen many people go into that environment and play real well. I have seen one, Becky Hammon.
“It’s almost like having an opening night where you’ve got different distractions. People are going to say nice things to ya and soften you up a little bit, that’s just how it is. You don’t know how to act.”
The known fiery matchup will knock anyone out of the gushy state quick, however. The Storm dropped its first regular-season series to the Mercury since 2000, winning only the June 2009 matchup in Phoenix.
The Mercury have had a week to prepare for the Storm and are focusing on star Lauren Jackson, who’s averaging 20.5 points and 3.5 blocks in her opening two games. But All-Star Swin Cash also is averaging 20.5 points and grabbing 4.5 rebounds. She averaged 17 points and nine boards in three games against Phoenix in 2009.
The matchup features teams that are equally well-rounded, although Phoenix is known for its up-tempo style and Seattle has the defensive pressure backed by good offensive skills.
“You never know who’s going to be able to impose their style,” Bird said. “So, it’s always an interesting matchup.”
CHAMPIONSHIP PATH?: Phoenix and LA spoke about the Western Conference title going through the both of them. Then Minnesota piped up to say they were contenders. Well, if Seattle can get the win against Phoenix on Saturday, they will have opened the season with victories against all three.
The Storm plays five-game regular-season series against the Mercury and Sparks due to Sacramento folding, so the edge is hardly established. Yet, it could be a good start in a tough conference.
“That doesn’t mean we disregard San Antonio or Tulsa, either,” said Agler, who agreed the win would be a good big-picture statement. “They’re good in their own right.”
San Antonio signed free agent Chamique Holdsclaw on Friday, waiving Australian Belinda Snell.
NICE DISH: The Storm only accounted for nine total assists in their opening win against LA. On Wednesday, Bird orchestrated 10 alone. The team had 18 overall in the 79-76 win against the Lynx.
DYK?: The game will feature two of the WNBA’s three active MVPs in Jackson (two) and Taurasi (one). Sparks star Candace Parker is the other.
INJURY UPDATE: Taurasi injured her hand while playing in Russia, but will start. She was wearing a splint and earlier told ESPN2 it didn’t hurt when shooting – only passing and some dribbling. She no longer needs the protection.
THE STREAK: Seattle is 19-12 all-time against Phoenix.

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