Elena Delle Donne, Washington Mystics finally win WNBA title

Oct 10, 2019

Mechelle VoepelespnW.com

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 — Elena Delle Donne grabbed teammate Natasha Cloud in a bear hug. Then Delle Donne ran over to hug her wife, Amanda. Confetti fell from the rafters. Tianna Hawkins ran to get her young son to celebrate. Aerial Powers jumped up on the scorer’s table to urge on the already screaming crowd, which then sang along with Queen’s “We Are The Champions.”

At last, the Washington Mystics, once considered the WNBA’s largely luckless franchise, are champions. The Mystics rallied from a one-point halftime deficit, beating the Connecticut Sun 89-78 in the decisive Game 5 of the WNBA Finals on Thursday at Washington’s Entertainment and Sports Arena.

“My goodness, this feels so good,” Delle Donne said of her first WNBA title. “It’s hard to even put it to words, 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, who had 21 points and nine rebounds despite suffering what after the game was revealed as three herniated disks in her back, was the regular-season MVP. But Emma Meesseman, who scored 22 points, was named WNBA Finals MVP. She sat out the 2018 season, when the Mystics were swept in the Finals by Seattle, as she stayed with her Belgian national team and also rested. Her team referred to the humble Meesseman as the missing piece this season.

“I was not thinking [of myself] as the missing piece, I was just a teammate,” she said. “I was going to do whatever I could to help my team win a championship.”

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For the first time, Washington got to hoist the WNBA’s silver trophy, and coach Mike Thibault — already the winningest coach in WNBA history, with a regular-season record of 336-242 — got his first title. He had coached the Connecticut Sun for 10 seasons before spending the past seven in Washington. He said he didn’t need a WNBA title to validate his career.

“But it sure feels good, don’t it?” Thibault said, to the crowd’s cheers. “We have an unbelievable family of players.”

It has been 21 years, 13 coaches and a new arena since the Mystics debuted in 1998. They went 3-27 that season. Over their first 15 seasons, they struggled with coaching consistency, and came close to making the WNBA Finals only once: in 2002, when they lost to New York in the Eastern Conference finals 2-1 under Marianne Stanley.

The franchise stabilized, though, starting in 2013 under coach and general manager Thibault, who has had by far the longest coaching tenure in Mystics history. This was his 14th appearance in the WNBA playoffs, and his fourth trip to the Finals. It was also Stanley’s first WNBA title; the Mystics assistant is one of women’s basketball’s pioneers, having won two Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women titles as a player at Immaculata and two AIAW titles and one NCAA title as head coach at Old Dominion.

The biggest personnel boosts to the Mystics came before the 2017 season, when Delle Donne pushed for a trade from Chicago, so she could be closer to her home in Delaware, where Lizzie, her sister with a disability, lives, and when Kristi Toliver signed as a free agent after winning the 2016 WNBA title with Los Angeles.

The Washington Mystics went the distance, beating the Connecticut Sun in Game 5 to win the first WNBA title in franchise history. Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

Delle Donne, a collegiate star at Delaware, was the No. 2 pick by Chicago in 2013. She played four seasons with the Sky, and went to the 2014 WNBA Finals with them. But the chance to be closer to family and play for Thibault made Washington a perfect fit for her.

The 30-year-old, who added her second WNBA MVP trophy this year, said Thibault and the Mystics’ coaching staff have helped her in many ways, but particularly on defense and with leadership. Delle Donne always has been a premiere offensive player, but was just as valuable defensively this season. And in leading the team, Thibault told her she didn’t have to change her personality.

“So many other coaches I’ve had have said, ‘You need to be meaner. You need to yell at your teammates,'” Delle Donne said. “He’s said the exact opposite: ‘The best leader you can be is when you’re true to yourself. Whatever you’re comfortable being, be that for your team.’

“That’s been such a game-changer for me. I don’t need to be the bad cop or cuss my teammates out. That’s not what I’m about. Leading by example, but also speaking when it’s needed.”

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Toliver, who had 18 points Thursday, is from Virginia and won a national championship with Maryland, and her goal was to bring a pro title to the Washington area.

“That was the purpose of coming here — to see how far we could come as an organization,” Toliver said. “That’s why I wanted to be here and why [Delle Donne] wanted to be here — to make history.”

All the pieces were there to make the Mystics one of the favorites for 2019. They brought back all their starters from last season, plus added 6-foot-4 forward Meesseman.

The Mystics didn’t have her for most of June and the first part of July, as she was with Belgium in the European championships. But in her 23 regular-season games (13.1 points, 4.2 rebounds per game), she was a key part of the Mystics’ WNBA-best 26-8 record.

Meesseman — who was chosen in the second round of the 2013 WNBA draft when she was 19 and no one fully realized just how good she was going to be — elevated her game even more in this postseason, averaging 21.8 points.

The even-keel Meesseman said she normally doesn’t get too nervous, although she was a bit on Thursday. Mostly, though, she has said her time in the WNBA has given her another sensation.

“I’ve had that feeling like … chills,” she said, “that everybody is here to watch a great game.”

Mike Thibault, already the winningest coach in WNBA history, finally has his first league title. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

They saw that Thursday, although the first half was choppier than most of the series had been, perhaps because of Game 5 jitters, fatigue, or a little of both. The Mystics in particular struggled from 3-point range in the opening 20 minutes, going 2-of-12 from behind the arc, and trailing 43-42 at intermission.

Jonquel Jones led the Sun with 13 first-half points, but she also picked up three fouls.

The Sun went on an 8-2 run to start the second half, taking a 51-44 lead and forcing Thibault to call a timeout. But Jones got her fourth foul with 6 minutes, 22 seconds left in the third quarter trying to defend Delle Donne, who converted a three-point play. The Mystics had to battle back in that quarter, and they did that behind Meesseman, who scored 11 points in the third.

Alyssa Thomas’ basket gave the Sun a 64-62 lead going into the final period. But the Mystics then took control of the game. They gained a 76-72 lead on Toliver’s drive to the basket, forcing a timeout from Connecticut with 4:22 left in the game. From there on, the Mystics were able to play well enough defensively and hit enough key shots to be able to celebrate.

For Mystics fans, this has been a long time coming. The ones who’ve been there since the beginning have dealt with their share of disappointments in a city that has had plenty of those overall in pro sports. But baseball’s Nationals are in the National League Championship Series, which starts Friday. And for Monumental Sports and Entertainment — which owns the Mystics, the NBA’s Wizards and the NHL’s Capitals — this has been a great two-year period. The Caps broke through for their first Stanley Cup in 2018, and now the Mystics have their first title.

“There’s a little bit of magic,” is how Delle Donne described the feeling in the Washington area.

Delle Donne often talked of the many stories that make the 2019 Mystics special.

Such as starter LaToya Sanders, who turned 33 in September and was the oldest player in the Finals this year. Meesseman, whose confidence surged this season. Toliver, who sat out the end of the regular season with a knee injury but returned for the playoffs. Ariel Atkins, the second-year player who also battled back issues in the Finals. Cloud, who was a second-round draft pick and has always felt she had to go the extra mile to prove herself. Cloud guaranteed a title after the Mystics lost Game 4, and 18 points and six rebounds in helping that prediction come true.

But Delle Donne is a superstar of women’s basketball, and her personal story of her devotion to her sister — and the different route she has taken in college and the pros — is the stuff of sports legends.

Lizzie Delle Donne is blind, deaf and has autism and cerebral palsy. She communicates through touch, which is why it has been so essential for Elena to be near to her as much as possible.

“Lizzie has been my journey, and some people have never understood my decisions,” Elena said. “Others have. But she’s been my path.

“I was talking to her all game long. She doesn’t know it. She doesn’t even know I’m a basketball player. But she’s been my biggest motivator, and she’s brought me to this moment.”

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