By Scott Mammoser
WASHINGTON – The Washington Mystics were the best team in the WNBA all season, and the franchise’s two-decade long hunt for a championship culminated in the nation’s capital on Thursday night. The Mystics pulled away from the Connecticut Sun midway through the fourth quarter, 89-78, after an evenly-fought five game series that displayed some of the highest-quality basketball the league has ever played.
“It’s hard to even put into words,” league MVP Elena Delle Donne said afterwards. “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 might have been the regular season MVP, but Emma Meesseman was named the Finals MVP after coming off the bench to score 22 points, 11 in the pivotal third quarter. The Belgian joined Australian Lauren Jackson (Seattle, 2010) as the only foreign-born players to be named Finals MVP.
“I’m just glad I had the confidence from the team,” Meesseman said. “They had my back, and they gave me the support. Without them, I would not be able to do what I did today, so it was like my family, and I really mean that.”
It is the first professional basketball championship for Washington since the Bullets won the 1978 NBA title. If you count the region’s NCAA titles, it’s the first since Kristi Toliver was a freshman leading Maryland to the 2006 NCAA women’s title, and the 32-year-old was again at the helm on Thursday night.
“The people are different, obviously, and I love these people” said Toliver, who also won a title with the Los Angeles Sparks three years ago. “I love the other people too. I think it’s special when you are able to make history, and we made history tonight, and that just takes it too a whole different level. Everybody says you’ll never forget your first, but this one with these guys and the relationships I have with them, I love them.”
Unfortunately, such an even-matched series needed a loser, and in this case, it was the Connecticut Sun. Although no one expected the Sun to be here. In a season with the WNBA missing so many brand-name players, a team without a former MVP or Olympian was left standing. Finalists in 2004 and 2005, the Sun went the durations of the Tina Charles and Chiney Ogwumike eras without returning. It took a special group to finish 23-11, blow out the Sparks in the semifinals, and take the Mystics all the way to wire. The Sun led 64-62 after the third quarter in Game 5, before Washington closed on a 27-14 run.
“I’m proud of us,” said Sun guard Jasmine Thomas, the team’s only player over age 30. “I think we asserted ourselves and wanted to make ourselves known in this league, not just as individuals, but as a team. We have taken pride in team basketball all season. We’re a close group and really care about each other.”
The level of play in the series was a golden advertisement for the WNBA, which has now concluded its 23rd season. With the return of Breanna Stewart, Maya Moore and others, plus the Tokyo Olympics next summer, the best is yet to come.