Making the shot wasn’t surprising for someone shooting 42.2 percent from deep. But what she did next was unexpected: Meesseman let her arms hang for a second, then punched the air with a little jump as the Mystics took a 71-70 lead.
For most players, what was essentially an animated fist pump would be considered a small show of emotion. For Meesseman, whose celebrations rarely amount to more than slapping five with a teammate even in the heat of battle, it was a big deal.
“Playoff Emma is having some fun!” Delle Donne said Saturday at Mandalay Bay Events Center, where the top-seeded Mystics will take on the Las Vegas Aces on Sunday in Game 3, with a chance to sweep the best-of-five series. “She’s a different character. I’m waiting for her to pound her chest or something.”
The Mystics have been saying that Meesseman was the missing piece from last year’s roster almost since the moment the Seattle Storm sealed their three-game sweep of Washington in the 2018 WNBA Finals. Meesseman sat out the WNBA season last year to take a much-needed break after six years of year-round basketball spread among the Belgian national team, her European League team and the Mystics. It was clear that against the polished Storm, Washington simply didn’t have enough threats on offense, especially with Delle Donne playing injured.
That Meesseman is back for the playoffs is one thing. But the Mystics didn’t just add another sharpshooter and a big-bodied, capable defender when Meesseman touched down in the District the night before training camp began in May. They got a bolder, more confident player who entered a series against Aces standouts A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage and came out two games later as the most buzzworthy big of all.
For those who missed Meesseman’s performance through two Mystics wins, Cambage summarized Thursday night: “She ain’t missing any shots.”
Cambage exaggerated, though not by much.
Meesseman has shot 62.2 percent from the field and 63.6 percent on three-pointers in an average of 34 minutes over the two games.
In Tuesday’s Game 1, she had 27 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and one steal. In Thursday’s Game 2, she darted around the Aces’ one-step-behind defense yet again and tied a career-high with 30 points, adding six rebounds, four assists and two steals. She was the difference-maker in the third quarter of both games after the Mystics gave up second-quarter leads.
What would her mother, Sonja Tankrey, a former Belgian player of the year and Meesseman’s coach for life, be most proud of?
“That I took my open shots,” Meesseman said without hesitation.
Meesseman is asserting herself in a big way partly because Las Vegas often keyed in on a ballhandler in the paint and regularly left her open on the perimeter in the first two games. But the usually reserved 26-year-old is also more confident on court — and better rested — than she has been since her rookie year with Washington.
“Two years ago when we played Minnesota, and she was dead tired at the end of the season and beat up. She couldn’t make a shot, she struggled, and it was part of the reason she needed some time away from the game a little bit,” Mystics Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault said. “ … She’s been rejuvenated. Her experience with her national team has helped her confidence because she’s a go-to player for them, and her teammates have kept telling her, ‘You’re a go-to player for us, too.'”
In the Mystics’ five playoff games in 2017, Meesseman took just 63 shots from the field, making just 30.2 percent overall and 23.1 percent of her three-pointers in averaging 9.6 points. This time around, she has taken 37 shots in just two games and has seen her shooting percentage skyrocket.
What has changed is her level of comfort with her teammates and assuredness in her role. Thibault told her how badly the team missed her when Washington was swept in the finals last year — a series Meesseman watched with mixed emotions in Belgium.
“It was hard,” Meesseman said, “but at the same time, of course I was just so happy for them. It was mainly that."
Difficult as it was to miss out on that series, Meesseman’s year off was essential. By the end of the 2017 season, her fifth in the WNBA, Meesseman was broken down. She sat splayed across a chair in the New York Liberty’s locker room after Washington’s single-elimination game in the second round of the playoffs that year, red-faced, watery-eyed and spent, with ice packs encased in bright-blue wrapping encircling both knees — and that was after a win.
Washington played three more games against Minnesota after that, but Meesseman knew she needed a break.
“The hard thing was to say it out loud,” Meesseman said.
She talked to Thibault about it for the first time when he visited her in Europe in November 2017. It was an easier decision for both sides to accept once Meesseman knew overseas duties would keep her out of the 2018 playoffs even if she played the regular season.
The Belgian made the most of her year away. She got to spend long, lazy stretches of time with her parents, brother and friends for the first time since Thibault drafted her as a 19-year-old. She traveled and sat outside on nice afternoons, eating at nice restaurants.
“I don’t go out. I don’t go partying. I don’t like it. I was just happy to spend time with my family and friends, people that I never see. . . . I’m not sure if that helped with 30 points tonight, but I was just very happy then,” Meesseman said Thursday, laughing then rushing to add: “But I’m happy now, too, okay. Right now? I’m really, really happy.”