ATLANTA (AP) Elena Delle Donne had a rather quiet night by her high standards.
The Washington Mystics are headed to the WNBA Finals for the first time in franchise history .
Rookie Ariel Atkins, Kristi Toliver and Tianna Hawkins picked up the slack for the Mystics, who held off the Atlanta Dream 86-81 in the decisive fifth game of their semifinal series Tuesday night.
”Wow,” coach Mike Thibault said. ”We’re here because we’re persistent, we’re resilient and we play together.”
The Dream led 71-69 with just under 7 minutes remaining but suddenly went cold at the worst time of a turnaround season. Washington seized the lead with a 9-0 run and survived a desperation 3-pointer by Tiffany Hayes, earning a spot in the Finals against Seattle.
Delle Donne was held to 14 points, far below the 24.7 she was averaging in the series despite missing Game 3 with a knee injury. She did make a big jumper with 1:41 remaining, and sealed the victory with four straight free throws in the closing seconds.
Yet this was really about Atkins, playing with the poise of a veteran while scoring 20 points. And Toliver, who came up huge in the first half and finished with 19. And don’t forget Hawkins, who chipped in with 17.
”That’s why I came to D.C. – to make history,” Toliver said. ”It’s very special to do it with this group of people. We just have a great, great locker room. It’s an exciting time to be a D.C. fan and I’m glad I’m on the winning side of it right now.”
Alex Bentley scored 16 points to lead five Atlanta players in double figures. But the Dream couldn’t overcome the loss of star Angel McCoughtry late in the regular season to a knee injury.
”I just got done bawling in the locker room,” said red-eyed Nicki Collen, who earned coach of the year honors in her debut season for leading the Dream to a 23-11 record – an 11-win improvement over 2017. ”I’m incredibly proud of this team. We’re further ahead than I thought we would be when I took this job.
”Damn, a hell of a year.”
The first half was a back-and-forth offensive show, even though Delle Donne was limited to four points.
Toliver carried the load with 17 points – much of it from long range. She knocked down a 3-pointer from almost 30 feet and even tried one from just inside the midcourt stripe.
The Dream responded with a more balanced attack, led by Bentley with 11 points off the bench, and were up 50-49 at halftime.
Both teams clamped down defensively in the second half.
In the end, Washington got the stops that mattered. After Bentley hit a 3 and Washington failed to get the ball inbounds, Atlanta had a chance to tie. But Bentley couldn’t get open, forcing Hayes to thrown up a wild shot that didn’t hit anything.
”We knew offense was not going to win this game,” Toliver said. ”We knew it would come down to defense and rebounding.”
Washington grabbed 17 offensive rebounds.
HOLDING HER TONGUE
Collen and her players were not happy with the way the game was called – especially in the fourth quarter.
The Dream was whistled for 21 fouls, compared to 10 for the Mystics. Renee Montgomery fouled out, depriving Atlanta of a much-needed 3-point threat in the closing seconds.
Washington finished 16 of 19 from the foul line. Atlanta was 8 of 9.
”There’s a lot I really could say that I’m not supposed to say,” Collen said. ”So I’m going to hold my tongue about what I’m not supposed to say.”
Delle Donne did lead the Mystics with 11 rebounds. She also had four assists, two blocks and a steal. … Montgomery and Brittney Sykes had 15 points each for the Dream. Hayes added 13 and Elizabeth Williams 10. Jessica Breland grabbed 12 rebounds. … Breland hobbled to the bench after a wild scramble in the lane midway through the third quarter but was able to return about 2 1/2 minutes later.
DROP THE MIC
After watching the game from the bench, McCoughtry grabbed a microphone to thank the home crowd for their support.
”We’ve got a great team,” she said. ”We’ll be back.”
Hawkins took over for Washington in the final 2 minutes of the third quarter, single-handedly ripping off an 8-0 run with a pair of 3-pointers and a fast-break layup that turned a 61-59 deficit into a 67-61 lead for the Mystics.
But the Dream finished the period on a high. After Delle Donne missed wide-open 3 from the top of the key, Montgomery raced to the other end of the court, curled behind a pick and hurled up a 3-pointer at the buzzer that cut the deficit to 67-64 heading to the final period.
The Dream missed out on the fourth trip to the Finals in franchise history. They were swept in each of their three previous appearances.
The Mystics were in the semifinals for the second year in a row. This time, they made it over the hump.