SEATTLE -- A halftime self-pep talk helped Breanna Stewart put up a historic stat line of 25 points and 11 rebounds in an 86-78 victory during her first game back at Climate Pledge Arena since leaving the Seattle Storm for the New York Liberty in free agency in February.
"I was like, 'Come on, let's get my s--- together a little bit,'" Stewart said after the game. "Just continuing to have that mentality of 'next play, next thing.' Whether it was scoring or rebounding and things like that, sometimes the little things help lead to a little bit bigger things.
"I just really appreciate this staff and everybody for not making it a bigger thing than it was, even though it was a really big thing."
Through the first half of her anticipated return to Seattle, Stewart said she felt the "emotional roller coaster of a day" was affecting her performance on the court. With eight points on 2-of-4 shooting, Stewart was hardly terrible. However, for a player who tied the WNBA playoff record with 42 points in her last game in Seattle -- a semifinals loss to the Las Vegas Aces last September -- that wasn't good enough.
"I was trying to play through it, but I was telling [coach] Sandy [Brondello] in the first half, I was just floating," Stewart said. "I don't think I was really doing anything except just like -- not sure what I was doing."
What Stewart was doing in the second half was controlling the game as the Liberty held off the Storm, playing all 20 minutes and scoring 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting with eight rebounds.
Stewart became just the second player in WNBA history with at least 25 points and 10 rebounds in her first game against a former team, joining Chamique Holdsclaw, who had 27 points and 10 boards with the Los Angeles Sparks against the Washington Mystics in 2005, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Seattle coach Noelle Quinn, used to having Stewart on her side of things, said "the best player in the world" was the difference in the game.
"I thought they were tough shots," Quinn said. "They weren't open 3s, she was in the midrange and shooting over our guards. Where she was catching it, it was a little bit more difficult to bring attention and disrupt there."
Before the game started, all attention was on the reception Stewart would receive from the Storm crowd after leaving the team she led to WNBA titles in 2018 and 2020, winning Finals MVP both times and regular-season MVP in 2018.
A handful of boos from Seattle fans were comfortably drowned out by cheers, with emotions growing throughout the game. As Stewart conducted an interview with ESPN between the first and second quarters, a fan screamed out, "We love you, Stewie."
After the final buzzer, Stewart headed to the sideline to share a hug with former teammate Sue Bird, who was sitting in the front row after retiring following last season. As Stewart left the court for the locker room, the remaining fans cheered her one last time.
Asked what she'll remember about the evening, Stewart said, "Just the way that the fans kind of embraced me. The ones that I played with. Being able to come back and be a part of that. The love Seattle has for basketball and the Storm and everything we've been able to accomplish together."
New York's trip to Seattle was part of a week full of reunions. On Saturday, the Liberty beat the Connecticut Sun in Jonquel Jones' first game against them, albeit at home rather than in Connecticut. And on Friday, New York will visit the Chicago Sky in All-Star guard Courtney Vandersloot's return to where she played the first 12 seasons of her career and won the 2021 championship.
"We were joking in the locker room about it being a revenge tour," Liberty teammate Sabrina Ionescu said, "because now we're going to Chicago and we're about to experience the same thing with Sloot, but I think it's just understanding where they're coming from and being there for them."
As much as Stewart said she enjoyed the experience of returning to Seattle, she also reflected at the end of the night that she was glad to have the moment behind her.
"I was definitely embracing the emotions, but it was hard," Stewart said. "It's hard when you have to balance both and do that. Now I've got the first out of the way. There will be more and the love and appreciation will be the same."