Elena Delle Donne felt cursed. Every time she made it to the game’s biggest stage, she was hindered by injuries.
This time around it was three herniated disks in her back. The league’s MVP wouldn’t let that keep her from her first WNBA championship.
Emma Meesseman scored 22 points and Delle Donne added 21 to help the Washington Mystics beat the Connecticut Sun 89-78 on Thursday night in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the Finals.
”Every time I get the Finals, something happens,” Delle Donne said. ”I think I pissed the basketball gods off when I decided to step away (in college). I hope this ends the drama that I’m having in the Finals.”
It was the first title in franchise history.
”It feels phenomenal, my goodness, feels so good. Hard to put it into words,” said Delle Donne, who fell short in two previous Finals appearances. ”To win it with such a great group of people. We wanted to win it for the person next to us. We’ll remember this season. I’m kind of sad the season’s about to be over. My goodness, we sure ended this on a high note.”
It was a fitting conclusion to an entertaining series and WNBA season. This was the seventh series in league history that had gone to a deciding Game 5, and the home team has won five of them.
Delle Donne scored four points during a decisive 8-0 run that gave the Mystics an 80-72 lead with under three minutes left. But it was Meesseman, the soft-spoken Belgian who unveiled a new, aggressive ”Playoff Emma” persona during the title run, who was named MVP of the Finals.
Meesseman missed last season while playing with the Belgian national team.
”I don’t think I’m the missing piece. I’m their teammate (and did what) I need to do help my team win a championship. This is my family right here,” she said.
Delle Donne, a seven-year veteran and two-time MVP, came to Washington three years ago in a trade from Chicago, hoping to get the Mystics their first title. She grew up about an hour from the city in Delaware and wanted to be closer to home.
Delle Donne sat out a year in college when she transferred in the summer before her freshman season from UConn to Delaware to be closer to her sister Lizzie, who is blind, deaf and has cerebral palsy.
”Lizzie has been my journey, and some people have never understood my decisions. Others have. But she’s been my path, and somehow she’s gotten me to this moment,” Delle Donne said. ”You know, it’s been a crazy journey. It’s been my own path. It’s been different from everyone else’s. I’ve just kind of believed in it, and you’ve got to follow your heart, and I’ve always trusted in her. Another reason I can battle through injury is like she’s been dealt the worst cards possible with her disabilities, and every day she gets up, she smiles, she laughs, she loves. So she’s always just been my inspiration.”
Delle Donne has battled injuries and illnesses all season, breaking her nose early in the year. She still wears a mask to protect it. She also wears a knee brace on her right knee after suffering a bone bruise in last year’s Finals.
Coach Mike Thibault earned his first WNBA championship. The league’s all-time winningest coach had reached the Finals three times in his career – twice with Connecticut – and last season with Washington, but fell short each time.
The game got off to a slow start with choppy play, but it picked up during a back-and-forth second half.
The Mystics trailed by nine midway through the third quarter before rallying within two at the end of the period. The teams traded the lead in the final period until Delle Donne hit a tough fadeaway midway through the quarter. After a Connecticut miss, Kristi Toliver – the only player on either team who had won a title before – drove down the lane and hit a beautiful finger-roll layup to give the Mystics a 76-72 lead.
Delle Donne added another basket, and Meesseman capped the run with a jumper.
”Emma went to work inside. Elena does what she does. You have to beat them by defending them. All the players stepped up in the fourth quarter when we needed it,” Thibault said.
Connecticut could only get within six points the rest of the way.
”They were just better down the stretch,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. ”Defensively, it wasn’t anything more than they were really physical. They were the physical team down the stretch when they needed it.”
Delle Donne got the final rebound and hugged her teammates at center court as the final buzzer sounded.
Jonquel Jones had 25 points for the Sun and Alyssa Thomas added 21 points and 12 rebounds.
Delle Donne said the team was aware that the only thing missing from its coach’s resume was the championship and was thrilled to help give him his first.
The two shared a long embrace at center court as confetti rained down after the game.
”I said I was very happy that I am one of the players and this team was able to bring him something that he hasn’t done yet,” Delle Donne said of their postgame celebration.
Meesseman got rolling when the Mystics desperately needed her, with Connecticut leading by nine. She scored 11 points in the third period on array of post moves and outside shots to get the Mystics within 64-62 heading into the final quarter.
Meesseman said her motivation was simple.
“The trophy,” she said. ”It’s a championship game. That’s all I need. I’m just playing basketball. Today I just shot my shot.”
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was in the crowd. Thibault met her once on a flight and the two struck became friendly. The Mystics visited the Supreme Court in June.
After being the best 3-point shooting team during the season, the Mystics couldn’t hit many shots from behind the arc on Thursday night. They were 4-for-19.
Game 5 held to form with the other four as the team that led after the first quarter went on to win. Washington led 23-20 after one period and Connecticut led by one at the half. … Mystics assistant coach Eric Thibault, Mike’s son, is getting married next weekend. … Connecticut lost in the Finals for the third time. They did it under Mike Thibault in 2004 and ’05.