- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2019

Last year, as Capital One Arena underwent renovations and with their new home not quite ready for them, the Washington Mystics became a playoffs-only barnstormer. The campuses of George Washington and George Mason universities played host as they pushed into the championship round and fell at the hands of the Seattle Storm.

So the Mystics do not take for granted what they feel is a state-of-the-art setup for them at the Entertainment and Sports Arena, the year-old facility in Ward 8. On Sunday, they re-christened it by doing something the franchise had never done before: winning a WNBA Finals game.

Washington beat the Connecticut Sun 95-86 in Game 1 in front of an elated sellout crowd and moved two wins away from capturing the first WNBA title in team history.

A 9-0 run in the middle of the fourth quarter helped the Mystics get away. Kristi Toliver fed league MVP Elena Delle Donne off a crossover dribble to set up an outside jumper. Ariel Atkins drained a corner 3-pointer on the next possession, and then Toliver got a finger-roll layup to fall from the middle of the paint.

The run gave the Mystics enough space to keep Connecticut at bay for the final few minutes. That stretch, and their 10 team 3-pointers, allowed them to overcome their 14 turnovers.



“I thought we adjusted fairly well to how we were going to be played, but the second half was played evenly and we need to be better than that,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said.

Delle Donne led the Mystics with 22 points and 10 rebounds and Atkins had 21 points. Toliver added 18 while Natasha Cloud put up 13 points and seven assists.

Atkins broke out of her scoring slump dating back to the semifinal series against the Las Vegas Aces. She shot 6-for-7 Sunday (3-for-4 on 3-pointers) to score her 21 after totaling just 18 points in the four-game Aces series.

“Yeah, I did struggle throughout the (semifinal) series, but the main point of all of this is to win,” Atkins said. “I could care less if I score 50 or 0 trying to win a championship.”

Toliver called Atkins, who also had five rebounds and three steals, “the best second-year player I’ve ever been around, as far as her maturity level” and team-first mentality.

“She had a great rookie season, and this year she’s just showing that sophomore slumps are B.S.,” Toliver said. “And I’m just really, really proud of her and all the plays that she’s made, and tonight her rebounding and her play making was the difference for us because those were in critical, critical moments.”

Game 2 is Tuesday at 8 p.m.

The Mystics finished the first quarter on an 12-0 run to break open a 13-point lead. The Sun fumbled away four straight possessions with a 3-second violation, a wayward pass that got caught in Cloud’s ankles, a traveling call and yet another turnover.

Connecticut kept pace with Washington as Alyssa Thomas scored 13 points for the Sun in the second quarter alone. The Mystics’ lead was down to 55-46 at halftime, and a third quarter played largely at the free throw line only grew Washington’s lead to 10.

With the game still close, the Sun hit some open 3-pointers early in the fourth to get within four points before the Mystics pulled away. Thibault credited Atkins’ aggression throughout the game, but especially in the home stretch — she grabbed an offensive rebound with 3:27 that led to Toliver’s finger roll.

“That looked like the Ariel from last year in the playoffs, and that offensive rebound she got late in the game was a huge saver for us,” he said. “It gave us the last piece of momentum that we needed.”

Connecticut guard Courtney Williams went 6 of 9 from the arc to lead all scorers with 26 points, and Alyssa Thomas finished with 20. The Mystics only allowed Jonquel Jones, the Sun’s leading scorer, to reach 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting.

“She’s got length, so you can send bodies at her and she can elevate and shoot over, but we were able to dig,” Delle Donne said. “The guards were able to help me a lot on those digs. She’s going to get her points, but you try to limit them and make everything hard.”

After Tuesday, the series shifts to Connecticut for Game 3 next Sunday.

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