by Ava Wallace

It was Natasha Cloud who first got to hug Elena Delle Donne, the guard enveloped by the usually stoic, 6-foot-5 forward while teammate Ariel Atkins sank to one corner of the court and rested her forehead on her fist. Across the paint, Emma Meesseman’s hands were on her head as disbelief washed over her for just a beat. Then the jumping began, and the Washington Mystics huddled together in a single mass as confetti started to fall.

A mosaic of pure joy unfurled on the court at Entertainment and Sports Arena on Thursday night as the Mystics claimed their first Women’s National Basketball Association championship with an 89-78 win over the Connecticut Sun.

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The final game of the best-of-five WNBA Finals series was a choppy, foul-laden affair that kept Washington from playing its preferred style, but that didn’t matter to the victors. Cloud and the team’s three all-stars — an unimaginable constellation of talent for a franchise that spent much of the first 15 years of existence at the bottom of the league — grabbed hold of the of the game and willed, with rebounds and bank shots and tough positioning in the paint, the Mystics to a win.

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With 50 seconds left and victory all but sealed, the home crowd started chanting “Run it back,” Washington’s unofficial slogan after it reached the Finals for the first time last year but got swept in three games by the Seattle Storm. Many in the stands had waited more than two decades to see the scene before them, so they remained on their feet as Washington held the silver trophy aloft.

Point guard Kristi Toliver was asked what the Mystics were thinking early in the fourth quarter, when the game was still tight.

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“All I said before the game was, ‘Regret nothing,’ ” Toliver said.

“And we didn’t regret anything,” Delle Donne finished.

The Mystics’ first title comes 22 seasons after the franchise was founded as an expansion team in 1998, the WNBA’s second year. That season the team posted a 3-27 record that portended years of disappointment and unmet potential: Before Mike Thibault took over as the team’s coach and general manager in 2013, the team had not finished with a winning record in consecutive seasons.

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A new era began in 2017 when all-stars Delle Donne and Toliver were added to the roster; a year later, the team advanced to the Finals for the first time. This season, the team moved into its own arena in Southeast Washington, trading a cavernous venue it shared with other teams — as well as numerous other events that at times forced the Mystics to find other places to play their home games — for a more intimate and energetic atmosphere.

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On the court, the pieces fell into place: The Mystics finished the regular season with a 26-8 record, the best in team history. Playing a freewheeling, fast-paced style of basketball, they made a case as the best offensive team the league had ever seen, winning a record eight games by 25 or more points and smashing the marks for three-point baskets and assists per game.

This season, Delle Donne was named league MVP, becoming the first WNBA player to earn the honor with two teams — she first won in 2015 with Chicago. A league championship was the final accolade missing from her résumé.

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Delle Donne’s path to the title was marred by injuries and debilitating, reoccurring bouts of Lyme disease. She played through injuries on all three of her trips to the WNBA Finals, including what Cloud said after Thursday’s game was three herniated disks in her back — not one, as the team’s medical staff previously disclosed — during the final three games of this year’s title series.

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Thibault, 69, also clinched a title that had eluded him. The winningest coach in league history won his first championship at the end of his 17th WNBA season and his fourth trip to the Finals — two with the Mystics, two in the 2000s with the Sun.

“Wow,” Thibault said after. “I’m just so happy for all these players and the organization who bought into what I was selling seven years ago. That there was a path to get out of what was a pretty desperate time here.”

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Meesseman was the third player Thibault selected in his first draft with Washington; he took her with the 19th pick. Seven years later she led the team with 22 points off the bench in Game 5 and was selected as Finals MVP. She and Delle Donne, who had 21 points, powered the Mystics to the win. Toliver and Cloud added 18 points apiece.

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For Delle Donne, the post-title celebration was a chance to reflect on her journey to the title. She demanded a trade to Washington from Chicago ahead of the 2017 offseason in part to be closer to her family in Delaware. Delle Donne is especially close with her older sister, Lizzie, who was born with autism and cerebral palsy and communicates through touch and scent.

“I was talking to her all game long,” Delle Donne said, her voice shaking. “Trying to have them miss free throws and whatnot — ‘Come on, Liz, give me a little something.’ 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 here.”

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The Mystics relied on a late push in the fourth quarter for their win; the most formidable three-point offense in the league made just four shots from behind the arc in the game. They barely outrebounded the Sun by 32-31 and went to the foul line seven more times. Ultimately, Washington’s win was about will.

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That meant one final grueling, physical game from Delle Donne and her teammates.

“I knew it was the last game, you know,” Delle Donne said. “I can rest now.”

In-game updates

by Emily Giambalvo

Final: Mystics 89, Sun 78

The Washington Mystics have won their first WNBA championship, defeating the Connecticut Sun in the winner-take-all Game 5. The Mystics, who lost to Seattle in the WNBA Finals last year, capped a season in which they set a franchise record for victories and several league marks for offensive production. The title is also the first for two-time league MVP Elena Delle Donne and for Mike Thibault, the winningest coach in league history.

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Emma Meesseman, who led the Mystics in Game 5 with 22 points and averaged 17.8 points off the bench for the series, was named WNBA Finals MVP. Delle Donne finished with 21 points and a team-high nine rebounds. Jonquel Jones of the Sun led all players with 25 points and added nine rebounds. Alyssa Thomas added 21 points, 12 rebounds and six assists for Connecticut.

Fourth quarter, 2:41 left: Mystics 80, Sun 72

Washington scored eight consecutive points within a 13-2 run, creating their largest lead of the game. Elena Delle Donne has scored 21 points for Washington.

Fourth quarter, 4:23 left: Mystics 76, Sun 72

After Connecticut led through the entire third quarter, Washington grabbed a four-point lead with fewer than five minutes to go. Elena Delle Donne’s go-ahead score, followed by a basket from Kristi Toliver to extend the lead, forced a Connecticut timeout. The Mystics have outscored the Sun, 14-8, in the fourth quarter.

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End of third quarter: Sun 64, Mystics 62

Connecticut has struggled to guard Emma Meesseman, who has scored a team-high 16 points off the bench. Eleven of those points have come in the third quarter. Her layup with 2:10 to go tied the game for the first time since late in the second quarter. The Sun still leads thanks to Alyssa Thomas’s layup with 1.4 seconds left in the third. The Mystics, who made more three-pointers this regular season than any other team in the league, are just 2 of 15 from deep.

Third quarter, 3:54 left: Sun 56, Mystics 54

Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones is on the bench with four fouls. She has 19 points and six rebounds. With Jones on the bench, Washington has climbed back. Elena Delle Donne’s layup brought the Mystics within two, forcing the Sun to take a timeout. Delle Donne has scored 15 points, her most since the first game of this series as the Mystics increasingly look to her.

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Third quarter, 6:39 left: Sun 53, Mystics 44

Early in the third quarter, Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas notched her third assist of Game 5 and her 35th of this series, breaking the record for assists in a WNBA finals. Chelsea Gray of the Los Angeles Sparks previously held the all-time high with her 34 assists in 2017. With fewer than seven minutes to go in the third quarter, Connecticut grabbed a nine-point lead, the largest of the game, which forced a Washington timeout.

Halftime: Sun 43, Mystics 42

The fast-paced and back-and-forth opening two quarters of play ended with a one-point Connecticut lead. Washington began Game 5 with abysmal three-point shooting, making just 2 of 12 attempts, an unusually poor mark for this team. Connecticut also made only two from deep, but had attempted only six.

Connecticut already slipped into foul trouble, most notably starting forward Jonquel Jones, who received her third late in the second quarter. As a team, Washington has 10 fouls compared to Connecticut’s eight, but no Mystics player has more than two. From the field, the Sun has shot 48.6 percent, while the Mystics have shot 43.2 percent.

Elena Delle Donne has played up to her billing as the league MVP, showing little sign of her recent injury. She leads the Mystics with 10 points. Jones has a game-high 13 points, but her early fouls could keep her off the floor at times through these final 20 minutes of play.

Second quarter, 31.3 left: Sun 43, Mystics 40

Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, who has already scored 13 points in Game 5, picked up her third foul just before the end of the second quarter. Both teams had only hit one three-pointer apiece before Washington’s Emma Meesseman nailed one to secure a short-lived Mystics lead. However, Jones responded from deep just 10 seconds later as Coach Curt Miller opted to briefly keep her on the floor despite the early foul trouble. Jones headed to the bench not long after she lifted the Sun back ahead of Washington.

Second quarter, 5:39 left: Sun 32, Mystics 30

This game has been tied seven times already, and Washington still can’t hit shots from three. Through the playoffs, the Mystics have averaged 10.8 three-pointers per game, but they’ve missed all but one of their 10 attempts so far in Game 5. The Mystics have grabbed plenty of second chances, though, with five offensive rebounds.

Turtle power

End of first quarter: Mystics 23, Sun 20

Washington and Connecticut played the tightest first quarter of the series, but the Mystics have the three-point advantage. The Mystics have shot 9 of 20 from the field overall but just 1 of 7 deep despite being one of the best three-point-shooting teams in the league. Jonquel Jones finished the quarter with a game-high six points as she’s playing well on the inside. The Mystics are narrowly winning the rebounding battle thus far, with the most significance difference between the teams showing up in fouls called on Connecticut’s starters.

Early foul trouble

Connecticut forward Alyssa Thomas picked up her second foul with three minutes to go in the first quarter. Thomas had played all 40 minutes in every game of this series, but she headed to the bench early in what has become the closest first quarter between these teams. Morgan Tuck entered the game in Thomas’s place. Another Sun starter, forward Shekinna Stricklen, received her second foul late in the first quarter, which will likely force Connecticut to rely more on its bench than usual.

First quarter, 3:31: Mystics 17, Sun 15

Through this series, the team ahead at the end of the first quarter has gone on to win every game. In each of those four games, the eventual winner had a double-digit advantage at the end of the quarter, but Game 5 has opened in back-and-forth fashion. Washington’s fluid offense has played well with good ball movement, and Mystics star Elena Delle Donne is playing the best she has since her injury.

Starting lineups

There are no changes to either team’s starting lineup for Game 5:

A pregame fashion statement

Kristi Toliver arrived at Entertainment and Sports Arena wearing her Maryland basketball jersey, a nod to her title-winning past.

While a freshman at Maryland, Toliver hit a late three-pointer to force overtime against Duke in the 2006 NCAA championship. She added two free throws with 35 seconds left in overtime. The Terps beat Duke, 78-75, to earn the program’s only national title.

Toliver is one of five Maryland graduates playing in the WNBA Finals. She joins Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (Class of ’17) and Tianna Hawkins (‘13) on the Mystics, while Brionna Jones (‘17) and Alyssa Thomas (’14) play for the Sun.

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