SEATTLE — Hours after going down two games to none in the WNBA Finals, the Washington Mystics boarded multiple red-eye flights back east, landing before sunrise Monday morning having had time to process a disheartening 75-73 loss to the Seattle Storm while turning their attention to the daunting assignment in front of them.
To claim the first championship in franchise history, the third-seeded Mystics must do what no WNBA team has ever done: overcome a two-game deficit in the best-of-five Finals. Nonetheless, Washington players were decidedly upbeat entering Game 3 Wednesday night at EagleBank Arena. They indicated that beating the top-seeded Storm would require a few minor corrections, most notably regarding ball security, not anything revolutionary.
“Yeah, we weren’t on the same page,” guard Kristi Toliver said in reference to the Mystics committing five fourth-quarter turnovers after two during the first three quarters combined. “Those are things we can fix. Obviously you don’t want those things to happen in the fourth quarter of a game so close.
“Clean it up. We’re better. We’re smarter. We’ll be okay.”
Toliver and the Storm’s Sue Bird were at the center of the defining sequence in the closing seconds of Game 2, which ended with Mystics players and Coach Mike Thibault voicing displeasure over what they perceived as a missed call by the officials.
Trailing by a point with 16 seconds to play, the Mystics inbounded to Toliver, who dribbled toward the basket along the baseline. She got past Bird, but the savvy veteran point guard reached around Toliver to poke the ball loose from behind. Seconds later, with players in a scrum trying to gain possession, officials called for a jumpball.
Seattle’s Natasha Howard won the jump over Tianna Hawkins and tipped the ball to teammate Jewell Loyd. The Mystics then allowed precious seconds to lapse before fouling Alysha Clark. She made 1 of 2 free throws with 1.8 seconds left, and Mystics rookie Ariel Atkins’s desperation shot from 70 feet away missed as time expired.
“Well, on the last play when Kristi had the ball, they had a foul to give. They tried to take the foul,” Thibault said. “Sue Bird took the foul, and the officials didn’t understand that Seattle was actually trying to take a foul, and then the ball gets knocked to the floor.”
Bird explained her defensive ploy has been part of her repertoire since her college days at Connecticut, much to the displeasure of longtime Huskies assistant coach Chris Dailey.
Toliver’s contention is that before the steal, Bird had fouled her with her arm, nearly clotheslining her.
Asked if she was trying to commit a foul, Bird said, “No, I wasn’t. If you want to go to talk to somebody about that play, you should go talk to Chris Dailey. I’ve been doing that swipe-around-the-back thing since I was like 18 years old. She absolutely hates it. She calls it the ‘Sue Bird Move.’
“I literally, the minute I walked into the locker room and checked my phone, I knew I was going to have a text message about it, and sure enough: ‘Congratulations, you did the Sue Bird Move.’”
After taking a 61-56 lead, the Mystics allowed Seattle to score nine consecutive points beginning late in the third quarter and into the beginning of the fourth.
Three-point shooting continued to be a struggle for Washington, which missed all 16 of its three-point attempts, including six by Toliver. The Mystics were fifth in the WNBA in the regular season in three-point shooting percentage and set a franchise record for three-pointers made. The Mystics are 3 for 37 (8 percent) on three-point attempts in the first two games of this series.
Elena Delle Donne, one of the league’s top three-point shooters, is 0 for 3 from beyond the arc in the Finals while playing with a bone bruise in her left knee. The 2015 WNBA MVP was injured late in the fourth quarter of Game 2 of the semifinals against the Atlanta Dream.
She had been wearing a brace to protect the sore joint until switching Sunday to a less restrictive sleeve over her leg and finishing with 17 points on 7-for-16 shooting with four rebounds and two blocks.
“Obviously it’s really frustrating to not come away with the win, but we were able to see a lot of things,” Delle Donne said. “And we get to build on it for these next three games.”