- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Emma Meesseman missed playing with her Washington Mystics teammates when they went on their 2018 postseason run without her. It turns out the team missed Meesseman more.

Meesseman led all scorers with a season-high 27 points and added 10 rebounds, Elena Delle Donne put up 24 points and the Mystics escaped Game 1 of the WNBA semifinals with a 97-95 win over the Las Vegas Aces at the Entertainment Sports and Arena.

Meesseman skipped the 2018 WNBA season to focus on training with her national team for the FIBA World Cup. Her return to a talented team that made it within three wins of a WNBA championship last year has long been seen as the extra X-factor the Mystics needed to win the crown this year.

“She’s been preached at all year by her teammates and coaches that she’s the missing piece from a year ago,” coach Mike Thibault said. “Her aggressiveness and her ability to shoot the ball and rebound the ball was gonna be the difference for us. Her comment to me last year was, ‘You guys don’t need me. You got to the Finals.’ I said, ‘We didn’t win. We need you. We need everybody.’”

It was far from a flawless team performance. After trailing at halftime, the Mystics charged ahead by as many as 13 points but then squandered the lead down to two late in the fourth quarter. Delle Donne posted up and made a fadeaway shot with 32.6 seconds left. The Aces scored quickly to cut it back to two, but Washington prevented them from making a game-winner.

“I think we got a little hesitant on offense, where it was just like, let’s try to let the clock run out and let’s try not to lose this game, instead of continuing to play with pace, finding one another, shooting the ball when you’re open,” Delle Donne said. “We weren’t playing the basketball we know how.”

Guard Kristi Toliver returned from a knee injury to play her first game since Aug. 8. She got off to a tough start, but started scoring at the end of the third quarter to finish with eight points and four assists.

“It felt good to see the ball go in,” Toliver said. “The first half was tough. I knew not every shot was gonna go in, so I just had to keep shooting and stay engaged and it felt good to see one go in.”

Toliver, who played 23 minutes off the bench, said she’s still getting used to the brace she wore on her knee.

“When you haven’t played in five or six weeks it’s gonna take a little bit of time,” Thibault said of the guard. “But we’re going to need her to win the series and to win beyond that if we do, and you have to start somewhere, so might as well start Game 1 if you can.”

Game 2 is Thursday night before the series shifts to Las Vegas for Game 3 Sunday.

The Mystics put up 13 3-point attempts in the first quarter, but made just four. Natasha Cloud had her shot going, making 3 of 4, but the offense flowed better through putbacks and mid-range jumpers around the paint.

Throughout the first half, Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson took turns commanding the paint and finding the bucket. The second quarter was back and forth until Las Vegas pulled off a 10-0 run, mainly by Wilson and Kayla McBride combining to reach the free throw line on three consecutive possessions.

Washington also didn’t have much of an answer for the Aces’ hot shooting — they made 61.8% for the half. Kelsey Plum went 4-for-4 off the bench in the first half and sank a buzzer-beating fadeaway to give Las Vegas a 57-50 halftime lead.

The Mystics scraped back into the game as Meesseman exploded for 13 points in the third. She scored from the free throw line and the arc, but often she’d be fed under the basket when the Aces were defending a drive from Delle Donne or Ariel Atkins. The big from Belgium went 12-for-18 shooting from the field with two 3-pointers.

Toliver got on the board with a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third, electrifying the home crowd that hadn’t seen her play for six weeks.

The bench had an uncharacteristic night of production until the fourth quarter. Tianna Hawkins, previously scoreless, opened the period by making a mid-range jumper and a 3-pointer. Washington soon pulled ahead by 10, its largest lead since the first quarter. Toliver tacked on a fadeaway jumper and a 3-pointer on consecutive possessions.

“Kristi had some Kristi moments, thank God,” Delle Donne said, “where she just kind of carries us on her back and just plays so fearless. That’s so hard, coming off an injury, being out for so long and you come back and your first game is the semifinals. But she’s clutch. That’s what Kristi does.”

But a few shot-clock violations and poorly-chosen shots by Washington allowed the Aces to push their back in until Delle Donne helped seal the deal in the last minute. Plum, with Delle Donne right on her back, heaved up a shot in the final seconds that clanged off the backboard.

Aces coach Bill Laimbeer was upset the referee next to him wasn’t whistling for a timeout he was calling for, but said that wasn’t the reason his team lost.

“It’s also a good learning experience of how mistakes are magnified in the playoffs,” he said. “We beat ourselves. I give Washington credit, they played a very fine basketball game, but the turnovers that we made were unforced turnovers. We gave them too many offensive rebound points and missed a few free throws, and we lost.”

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