Ariel Atkins sparks Mystics to Game 1 win in WNBA Finals

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CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

WASHINGTON — Kristi Toliver has been in the WNBA for 11 seasons and has won a league title. So it’s a big compliment when she calls second-year pro Ariel Atkins “an old soul.”

“Her play shows that, her demeanor, her work ethic,” Toliver said after the Washington Mystics’ 95-86 victory in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun. “That whole sophomore slump thing is a myth as far as she’s concerned.”

That said, Atkins came into the championship series in a bit of a shooting slump, going 5-for-21 during the Mystics’ semifinal series against Las Vegas. Atkins didn’t score in double figures in any of those four games, with 18 points total. But she had 21 points Sunday, making six of seven shots from the field and six of six from the line. It was her fourth game with at least 20 points this season, and Washington has won all of them.

“It’s fun. I feel like this is what we play for,” Atkins said of the excitement of the playoffs in front of a packed house at the Entertainment and Sports Arena. “Regardless of if the moment is big or small, though, I’m going to always give my all.”

Ariel Atkins hit six of seven field goals, including 3-for-4 on 3-point attempts, to score 21 points for Washington. Atkins totaled 18 points in the WNBA semifinals. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time this season, the Sun saw the full force of the Mystics. That’s not a good sight if you’re an opponent watching a parade of red-clad Mystics shoot red-hot from the floor. The Mystics hit 63.6% from the field in the first half and finished at 54% for the game.

Unlike in the three regular-season meetings — two of which the Sun won — both Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman were on the court for the Mystics. Delle Donne missed the teams’ first game in May because of knee soreness, and Meesseman missed both June games because she was with the Belgian national team.

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But the “E-Squared” forward duo didn’t do the only damage against the Sun. Atkins and fellow guard Natasha Cloud combined to get the Mystics off to a fast start and continued to spark the team throughout a game that got tighter than Washington wanted in the fourth quarter.

Even then, the Mystics had answers, and Atkins, the No. 7 draft pick in 2018 out of Texas, was a primary one.

Atkins hit a 3-pointer with 4 minutes, 7 seconds left to put the Mystics up 85-76. Everyone is used to Delle Donne, Meesseman and Toliver hitting clutch shots for Washington.

But Atkins and Cloud can do it, too, and that’s a key reason the Mystics were such a nightmare for opposing defenses all this season. Their biggest weapons, specifically league MVP Delle Donne, were a big story. But not the entire story.

Elena Delle Donne joined Lisa Leslie (2001) and Deanna Nolan (2007) with the third 20-point, 10-rebound, 5-assist game in WNBA Finals history. Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Mystics were the league’s best offensive team all season, and Delle Donne led the way with 22 points Sunday. Toliver had 18, Cloud 13 and Meesseman 11. Although coach Mike Thibault might have wanted a little better defensive effort, it was a bend-not-break performance from Washington. Courtney Williams had 26 points to lead the Sun, who shot 48.5% from the field.

“Connecticut is a high-energy team. Everybody knows that,” Atkins said. “So being able to match that is really important.”

That included what Atkins did on the boards. She got a key rebound off a Meesseman miss with 3:27 left, giving the Mystics another chance they took advantage of with Toliver’s finger-roll layup 11 seconds later.

It was one of those “I might be under 6 feet tall, but nobody else is getting this ball but me” kind of rebounds by the 5-foot-8 Atkins.

“I just found out I was only 5-[foot]-8 in my physical here,” Atkins said with a smile. “I keep telling people I’m 5-[foot]-10, which I’m not. But I think it was just a matter of opportunity.”

It was fitting that she also grabbed the Mystics’ last rebound and finished with five boards. She tends to be a woman of few words — “We can sit in a room, and if nobody’s talking, I’m OK” — letting her game speak for her. Which it did Sunday.

“Her play is loud,” Toliver said, “and she’s quiet.”

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