Storm surge toward top of standings could contine vs. Liberty

Based on what unfolded in the first half, the race to the top in Western Conference could a race to the finish.

Four teams are separated by two games and one of those teams is the Seattle Storm, who last won the Western Conference in 2010 when they went unbeaten en route to a WNBA title.

The Storm (12-5) are three wins from matching last season’s win total and begin their second half by visiting the struggling New York Liberty on Tuesday night at the Westchester Civic Center in White Plains, N.Y.

Seattle is tied for second with the Los Angeles Sparks and a half-game behind the Phoenix Mercury. The Minnesota Lynx are two games back and on a seven-game winning streak heading into their home game against the Indiana Fever.

Of the four teams vying for the top spot, the Storm may face the toughest road, playing 11 of their remaining 17 games outside of Seattle, where they are 4-2. By comparison, the Mercury have played 11 road games already.

“I’m happy we’re 12-5,” Storm guard Sue Bird told the Seattle Times. “It’s better than being 5-12 without a doubt, especially when we’ve had so many home games. But on the flip side, we’re going to be on the road a lot and anything can happen on the road.”

The Storm are 4-1 in their last five games after an 84-70 home win over the Connecticut Sun on Sunday night. Breanna Stewart, who is the league’s top scorer at 21.9 points per game, was held to 11 points, but the Storm had enough.

Six players reached double figures as Natasha Howard scored 13 points. Bird added 11 points and nine assists, and the veteran point guard provided Sunday’s highlight with a no-look pass over her head, resulting in a fast-break layup to Howard in the third quarter.

“That’s a good day that you can get six in double figures, nobody plays 30 minutes and get 42 points in the paint, and defensively I thought we were solid,” Seattle coach Dan Hughes said after his team allowed Connecticut to shoot 37.5 percent. “Now, off to New York.”

New York would love to be 12-5 but instead will head into their final game of the first half with a disappointing 5-11 record. It is the Liberty’s worst mark through 16 games since 2014 and their second worst 16-game start in team history.

The Liberty are 3-9 in their last 12 games but halted a five-game losing streak with a 97-94 overtime victory at Chicago on Sunday.

Tina Charles scored 28 points, including the go-ahead putback with 15.9 seconds left in overtime. She has scored at least 20 points in consecutive games for the first time since doing so in four straight games from May 29 to June 7.

After ending their longest streak since 2014, the Liberty are hoping to get it going at their relocated home court. Playing about 30 miles north of Madison Square Garden, the Liberty are 3-5 at the smaller venue and 3-6 at home overall.

“I’m just tired of losing,” Charles told reporters last week after a double-digit loss to Phoenix. “You don’t want to get used to it, definitely when you have a really good team.”

The Liberty are hoping to reverse things as Epiphanny Prince gets more into the flow with increased playing time after missing most of the first month with a concussion. Though she was held to eight points Sunday, she played a season-high 30 minutes and produced back-to-back 21-point showings last week.

“We know we’re a good ballclub,” Prince told reporters last week. “None of us like to lose. At the same time, we’re still optimistic we can turn this thing around.”

New York is 12-4 in the last 16 regular-season meetings with Seattle since 2010.