- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2019

Emma Meesseman had her arm wrapped around a woman and pointed to the photographers capturing the moment. This, she clarified, was her mother. Not whoever ESPN misidentified in the crowd during Game 4.

Together, they celebrated. Months earlier, Meesseman’s mom, Sonja Tankrey, told her daughter that if the Washington Mystics were to make the WNBA Finals, she would be there. She delivered, making the trip from her native Belgium to be in attendance for the whole series.

And on this night, when the Mystics won their first-ever championship in an 89-78 victory, when Meesseman sealed her Finals MVP with 22 points off the bench, the trek had all been worth it.

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“I’m very glad I was here,” Tankrey said.

“I wish my whole family was here, but I’m glad she was here so I could share it,” Meesseman said, “because basketball life is pretty lonely. The fact she was here, in one of the biggest moments of my life, the biggest achievements, it’s great.”

At 26 years old, Meesseman is used to playing basketball all over the world. She’s played in professional leagues in Belgium, France, Russia and the States. It can be a taxing journey, and in 2018, Meesseman took an entire season off from the WNBA in order to rest, and to focus on training with her national team. 

Meesseman doesn’t regret the decision. Even after Thursday’s Game 5 win, she told reporters she needed the break. She got to stay home, never thinking “what if?” — even as Washington was swept last year in the finals against the Seattle Storm.

The Mystics, though, could have desperately used her, which is why her return this season has proved to be so vital. When she returned, coach Mike Thibault brought her off the bench as the Mystics were better suited with Elena Delle Donne in the starting lineup.

But Meesseman never blinked at the role, said friend and Belgium teammate Ann Wauters. Wauters, who flew from Belgium to watch the final two games of the series in person, said that’s Meesseman’s personality.

“She does whatever the team needs her to do,” Wauters said.

It was fitting Meesseman was the player who earned the series’ MVP award. When Thibault was first hired to run the Mystics in 2013, one of his first draft choices happened to be a lanky 6-foot-4, 19-year-old from Belgium. Meesseman’s growth correlated over with Washington’s over the years, as it went from the league’s worst to now champions.

On Thursday, the Mystics wouldn’t have won without Meesseman. As they struggled over the first half with their shots barely falling, the Mystics got into a rhythm when Meesseman scored 11 of her 22 total points in the third.

Meesseman, too, took over while star Elena Delle Donne was struggling. The 26-year-old repeatedly got the ball in the post and from there, she either took advantage of a mismatch or kicked the ball out to a teammate.

“There were moments tonight that if it was a couple of years ago,” guard Kristi Toliver said, “she wouldn’t have wanted the ball in those moments. She wanted it.”

By the fourth, Meesseman drew enough attention that gave Delle Donne room to work. The Mystics’ regular-season MVP finished with 21 points on 8 of 16 shooting, and went 5 of 6 in the fourth. That, in part, was because of Meesseman making the right plays.

All year, Thibault dubbed her as the “missing piece,” which he said was done with the intention of putting pressure on her. Asked about the motivational tactic, Thibault said Meesseman didn’t appear to be as nervous heading into Game 5 than she was the previous outing. The tactic had worked, he thought.

But that wasn’t the case at all. Meesseman said she was nervous — “so nervous” — before Thursday’s tip-off.

“Holy smokes,” Thibault said. “She looked more calm today.”

By nature, Meesseman is an introvert. Inside the Mystics’ locker room, Meesseman keeps a photo of her and teammate LaToya Sanders that is taped over their lockers. The picture was hung for a few reasons, mostly as an inside joke to annoy the rest of the room.

But the two are also the introverts on the team, Meesseman said.

Sanders said she isn’t surprised by Meesseman’s success. This isn’t the first title they’ve won together, also winning the EuroLeague championship two years ago.

For that series, Meesseman was also named the Finals MVP. Sanders laughed, adding they needed to keep their streak going.

“She’s grown and has become a phenomenal player and person,” Sanders said. “She carried us in that fourth quarter.”

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