Brittney Griner made an emphatic and emotional return to the WNBA’s midseason showcase event.
She scored 18 points, including her team’s first six, and put down two dunks in the league’s All-Star Game on Saturday night.
The sellout crowd roared when Griner was introduced and, clearly moved by the ovation, she tapped her chest over her heart with her right hand. There was no doubt that a year after being forced to miss this event while detained in Russia, Griner was the star of the show.
“To have that ovation and all those little memories that I can cherish now, it means the world,” Griner said. “So it was no question I was going to come and play. They have never wavered in their support.”
Griner led Team Stewart, captained by the New York Liberty’s Breanna Stewart, to a 143-127 victory over Team Wilson, led by the Las Vegas Aces’ A’ja Wilson. The 143 points and 270 combined points are All-Star Game records.
Team Stewart’s Jewell Loyd of the Seattle Storm broke the All-Star Game scoring record with 31 points, setting the mark on a pass from Griner. Maya Moore and Kelsey Plum shared the previous record of 30 points. Loyd earned MVP honours for the game.
“I played hard because of my parents; I didn’t get them a gift for their anniversary,” Loyd said. “So I think this was acceptable. I hope it is.”
Plum actually tied her own record with 30 points, one of four Aces competing for Team Wilson, who received loud ovations from the home crowd in pregame introductions. Plum, who also had five assists, said sponsors pledged to donate $1,000 to a Las Vegas charity for each basket and assist.
“So I was gunning,” Plum said. “I mean 17 shots in 21 minutes is wild.”
She raised $16,000.
Griner, at this time last year, was being held in Russia on drug charges, sparking international outrage that she was being wrongfully detained. The WNBA named her an honorary starter, with every player wearing her No. 42 jersey in the second half of last year’s game.
This year, Griner was in the starting lineup — the only one wearing that jersey number — overshadowing almost everything that happened on the court.
Team Stewart made Griner the focal point from the beginning. She delivered a dunk with 3:50 remaining in the first quarter off an outlet pass from Stewart. Griner also had a dunk 25 seconds into the second half.
“I called my knees and talked to them and gave them a little pep talk,” the 32-year-old Griner said of her dunks.
She displayed that same jumping ability afterwards, leaping up on the riser for the postgame news conference.
Griner at one point in the first quarter challenged Team Wilson point guard Chelsea Gray of the Aces, but Gray drove past the nine-time All-Star from the Phoenix Mercury and dropped in a reverse layup from high off the glass. It was one of the few plays that didn’t work out for Griner.
At the first media timeout, Griner was shown on the video board as she sat on the bench with the words, “WELCOME BACK BRITTNEY GRINER” on the screen below her face.
Griner was among the players who wore microphones during the game, joking after missing a 3-pointer that she “got something in my eye.”
The game was played with a 20-second shot clock rather than the usual 24, two 4-point spots on each side of the court were added and there were no free throws. The teams combined to hit 12 4-point shots.
New York’s Sabrina Ionescu, representing Team Stewart, made all three of her attempts from 4-point range in the first half, carrying over her extraordinary shooting from the previous day. Ionescu set a WNBA and NBA record with 37 of a possible 40 points in the 3-point contest. She finished with 18 points.
Sue Bird, Seimone Augustus and Sylvia Fowles were among the ex-WNBA players in attendance, with Fowles wearing Napheesa Collier’s Minnesota Lynx jersey.
Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and Dwyane Wade were among those with NBA ties watching. Wade is buying an ownership stake in the Chicago Sky.
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