Twelve seconds remained on the clock when Elena Delle Donne let the ball drop to the floor so she could embrace Natasha Cloud. Soon all five Washington Mystics on the court were in on the hug, then the whole team, before confetti rained down on the floor to mark the end of the game and the end of a journey.
Delle Donne found her coach, Mike Thibault. There was something she had to tell him.
“Coach and I, we’ve had this little thing through the playoffs where we go up to each other and say, ‘Have I told you lately that I love you?’” Delle Donne said. “Even in bad losses when we’re angry at each other, we do that to keep ourselves going to realize how much we do love each other, and how much I’ve trusted in him by coming here to D.C. and believing in his dream, and him just putting together this team that is just so great on the court and off the court.”
The Mystics captured the first WNBA title in their 22-year history Thursday with a dramatic Game 5 WNBA Finals win over the Connecticut Sun, winning the series three games to two.
Washington beat Connecticut 89-78 despite trailing by as many as nine points. Emma Meesseman led the Mystics with 22 points and was named Finals MVP. Delle Donne scored 21 and Cloud had 18, including a pair of clutch 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter.
The game was tied at 72 with 5:10 remaining when the Mystics broke free. Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver and Meesseman combined for an 8-0 run with buckets in the paint on four straight possessions, giving them all the cushion they needed for the rest of the night.
The Mystics finally reached the pinnacle of the sport, after the acquisitions of Thibault, Delle Donne and Toliver set a franchise turnaround into motion.
“There’s a lot of people that stuck with this group,” Thibault said, “and when we came here seven years ago on the heels of a 5-29 season, this thing was on the brink. To see what’s happened, this building, everything else that’s gone with it, I appreciate it so much.”
A year after the Seattle Storm swept them in the finals, the Mystics set out with championship aspirations and a clear team motto from Day 1: “Run it back.” They started training camp by watching video of the Storm hoisting the trophy and celebrating on the Mystics’ temporary home court at EagleBank Arena.
But last year they didn’t have Meesseman, who took the season off to train with the Belgian national team for the world cup, and all year she proved she was the missing piece that everyone kept calling her.
“When I first came back from missing last year, I kind of knew in the back of my head that we were going to do it because I felt the difference the past few years,” Meesseman said. “It was that being hungry to take that last extra step. So ‘Run it back’ is the exact way to describe our team and our season this year.”
Strengthened by the opening of their new home facility in Ward 8, the Mystics set a franchise record by going 26-8 in the regular season and earned the No. 1 playoff seed. Four months after their first home game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena, they lifted the trophy there.
“We had a goal to try to get home-court advantage. It ended up being a difference,” Thibault said. “And that work that we put in to get the fifth game on our court paid off tonight because this crowd was great, our energy was great — but you don’t do that in the last two weeks of the season, you do that throughout, and I think they’ve been great at it.”
“Nobody wanted to win it in Connecticut,” Toliver added. “Connecticut stinks. You guys were there.”
Connecticut led 43-42 after a first half with six lead changes and 11 ties, as neither team pulled off a run larger than 6-0. Then the Sun opened the third quarter scoring 10 of the first 12 points, prompting an early timeout from Thibault along the way.
But Meesseman erupted for 11 points in the period to bring the Mystics neck and neck, exerting her control by pivoting around defenders and driving in the lane. Later on during the key 8-0 streak in the fourth, she expertly beat her defender with a fake pass to free up her scoring lane.
“She wanted the ball in the biggest moments, and a couple years ago she didn’t,” Toliver said of the Belgian. “And so that’s a huge credit to her and her growth as a player and a person.”
Sixteen months after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, a second Monumental team has earned a championship banner for the District. Wizards stars John Wall and Bradley Beal were among the many local figures on hand to watch the Mystics win.
That was only appropriate. In the afterglow of the win, all Mystics players could talk about was family. It echoed how the on-court announcers at both Mystics and Wizards games like to address their fans — their “D.C. family.”
“It’s hard to even put it to words, but to win this and win this with such a great group of people, I think that’s what makes this so special,” Delle Donne said. “We wanted to win this for the person next to us. It wasn’t about winning it for ourselves … We’re going to remember this season because we were around such incredible people, and we absolutely adore being together.”