- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2018

FAIRFAX, Va. — The “rule of three” is poetic and tidy, but it doesn’t always apply.

After the Washington Capitals hoisted the Stanley Cup in June and the Washington Valor pulled off an upset win in the ArenaBowl in July, the Washington Mystics had a chance to deliver the third trophy of the summer to the nation’s capital.

Instead, the Seattle Storm swept the Mystics and won their third WNBA title with a 98-82 Game 3 win Wednesday night at EagleBank Arena at George Mason University.

The best season in Mystics franchise history ended in heartbreak. It was their first Finals appearance and Wednesday was their first time hosting a Finals game, with a sellout crowd of 9,164 in the building. They were trying to become the first team to come back down 2-0 in the Finals to win the series.

Some teams on the wrong end of championship results will say the season was a failure because the goal was to win it. That sentiment had no place in the Mystics’ locker room after the loss, not for coach Mike Thibault — the WNBA’s winningest coach who once again fell short of finally winning his first title — and not for his players.

“You can’t be unsuccessful if you’re in the Finals,” Kristi Toliver said. “We have to think big-picture. This team made a lot of great strides from last year to this year.”

“I posted on the board for my team in training camp one of the preseason predictions that was out there,” Thibault recalled. “It was putting us seventh or eighth, I can’t remember. And our team took a look at that and said, ‘Hell no.’”

Elena Delle Donne (23 points) and Toliver (22 points) carried the Mystics in scoring, but the team could not contain regular-season and Finals MVP Breanna Stewart, who posted 30 points and eight rebounds, and Natasha Howard, who tallied 29 points and 14 boards.

The Storm built a 46-30 halftime lead thanks to a dominant, 21-10 run in the final six minutes of the second quarter. Washington missed seven 3-pointers in that period and shot just 29.7 percent from the floor in the half.

In the third, starting center LaToya Sanders made a heroic dive to save a ball heading out of bounds, allowing Toliver to scoop it up and score. But Sanders injured her ankle on the play and had to be carried to the locker room by two Washington staff members, done for the night.

“You’re taking a starter out of the lineup who was playing pretty well, had a good start to the second half,” Thibault said. “She turned her ankle pretty good stepping off the edge of the floor going for the loose ball.”

It got out of hand before long. Sloppy passing led to five steals allowed and eight more “bad pass” turnovers for the Mystics, and they did not play tight enough perimeter defense against a Storm team that shot 13-for-26 from the arc.

The Mystics looked poised for a fourth-quarter comeback by opening the period on an 11-1 run, with Delle Donne scoring the first six points. The score became as narrow as 72-67, but soon Stewart made a jumper and drew a foul from Delle Donne. The three-point play sparked Seattle to pull away.

Delle Donne injured her left knee two weeks ago in the league semifinals against Seattle and did not put in a dominant performance ever since returning to the court. Washington refused to use her bone bruise as an excuse, but with the season over, the star forward expounded on her limitations.

“I unfortunately wasn’t able to practice a lot in the moments that we had off,” Delle Donne said. “I was trying to kind of figure out my go-to moves as games were going on and just try to get comfortable finding different ways. I’m a very left-footed player. I like to push off one leg in floaters, step-backs, all that off my left leg.”

The post-game locker room scene was a brief moment.

“I just talked to them about how proud I was of them and the things that we can do, briefly, that we can do to get better,” Thibault said. “Where we were picked and where we ended up, they should be excited about, and they should be excited about the future.”

The players, meanwhile, saved what they had to say for Thursday’s season-ending exit meeting.

“I think this is a time that you just reflect,” Toliver said. “We all know that we’re happy and we’re proud of where we were at, but we want to be better and I don’t think you have to say that. I think everybody knows.”

Seattle coach Dan Hughe praised the Mystics in his opening statement to reporters.

“The team that we played in their own way are champions,” he said. “You watch (Delle Donne and Toliver). They embody this league in the most positive ways.”

All that’s missing is the hardware. The championship trophy has eluded the Mystics for their 21 seasons of existence. Unluckily, in the Finals they ran into an elite team, the top playoff seed who finished 26-8 in the regular season and starred Stewart and legendary point guard Sue Bird.

It didn’t dim their view of how well 2018 went up until the final round.

“Everybody else in the league wishes they were playing tonight,” Toliver said. “We’re very aware of that. I’m thankful that we were here and know that we can improve, so we will.”

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