With 6 minutes and 28 seconds left in the 3rd quarter of Game 5 of the WNBA Finals, Elena Delle Donne needed to make a big play. She just received the ball from Natasha Cloud and stood on the three-point line. The Mystics desperately needed a basket as the Sun had just opened up a nine-point lead off a 10 to two run. After watching her teammates run an action, the MVP decided to force the issue herself. Delle Donne went right at Alyssa Thomas, spun into the paint, hit the bank shot, and drew the 4th foul on Jonquel Jones. Afterwards, she let out a roar as if to say “I’m not losing tonight.”
The play marked the game’s turning point. Jonquel Jones sat for the rest of the quarter and DC finished the game by outscoring Connecticut 43-25. However, the play was not emblematic of the Mystics’ beautiful and flowing offense that captivated the league. EDD shrugged off the team’s off-ball action to go right at one of the league’s best defenders in isolation. It was a moment of sheer determination. While it may seem out of step with the team’s offensive plan, Delle Donne’s bucket exemplified the will of this team to win a championship this season.
“This team was determined for greatness. It took five games, took four in the semis, it took battling injuries, it took a lot of resilience, fight, heart,” said Kristi Toliver wearing skiing googles with the champagne-drenched trophy next to her. “We had the biggest heart all year, and we were the most focused and determined team all year, and we’re just really proud of what we’ve done.”
In Game 5, that determination manifested itself in the Mystics forcing the game where it needed to go rather than going with the flow like EDD did. After Jonquel went to the bench, the previously reluctant Emma Meesseman took charge. She just gave it to Brionna Jones, who racked up 3 fouls in a minute and 15 seconds. Then, Morgan Tuck came in and got roasted too.
Meesseman had 11 points in just six minutes and 22 seconds. Her personal run gave the Mystics a ton of momentum heading into the fourth quarter. Emma has been called “the missing piece” all season for the Mystics. In the biggest game of her life, she had 22 points on 13 shots and earned Finals MVP honors. The team’s belief in her and her determination to prove them right made her accomplishments possible.
“I’ve never really believed [the missing piece thing]because I know last year I would not be the same player [as I am]this year. So I’m just glad that I got that confidence from the team, that they had my back, and they gave me the support. Without them I would not be able to do what I did today,”
After Emma’s run, the Entertainment and Sports Arena came alive to push the Mystics into the final quarter. Washington kept forcing the issue. Emma continued to post up, but found Natasha Cloud for a couple threes off Connecticut’s digs. Elena Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver each had twice as many fourth-quarter shot attempts as they did in Game 4. Defensively, the team turned up the intensity.
The moment I knew that the Mystics would win the game came with about 5 minutes left in the game. The Sun, trailing 74-72, attacked Emma Meesseman with a Courtney Williams and Alyssa Thomas pick and roll. But Cloud fought through both screen attempts as Meesseman hedged then recovered. The possession ended with a wild Courtney Williams shot attempt at the end of the shot clock. On the next offensive possession, Kristi Toliver got to the rim for a layup and DC never looked back.
But, the moment when I knew the Mystics would win the championship came a long time ago. It was on August 14th during their game against the Seattle Storm. Earlier in the season, Washington blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter to lose at home to the Storm. In the August game, DC saw a 15-point third quarter lead begin to evaporate and led by just 8 heading into the fourth.
You could feel the tension in the Entertainment and Sports Arena. The Mystics had championship expectations, but they needed to show that they had a killer instinct and the ability to put teams away. Playing against the team that swept them in last year’s Finals and already came back on them this year added to the moment. Washington not only had to win the game, but had to make a statement. They had to announce that they were ready to win a championship.
And they did. DC played a perfect fourth quarter on both sides of the ball. They won the quarter 29 to 8 to win the game 88-59. It was the largest margin in the fourth quarter by any team this season. For the first time all season, it didn’t feel like the Mystics merely should win the championship. It felt like they were going to win the championship.
“They went to the Finals last year so when I came [back]here, I could feel the difference in their mentality that they want to go as far as they did last year and just take that last step. We know we can do it. That’s the biggest change,” said Emma Meesseman when I asked her about the difference in this team from the 2016 team after that game.
The Mystics knew they could win the championship all season. In that game against Seattle, in their quest for the one-seed, in the semifinals series against Las Vegas, and in the Finals, they showed why. They were determined for greatness. They achieved greatness.