LAS VEGAS — In the first game she has started since Aug. 8, Kristi Toliver began the second half of Game 4 of the WNBA semifinals by calmly removing the brace protecting her healing right knee and then calmly drilling a three-pointer in front of Las Vegas Aces Coach Bill Laimbeer.
Multiple Mystics were clutch Tuesday night in front of 5,465 screaming spectators at Mandalay Bay Events Center. Toliver was, scoring 12 of her 20 points in the third quarter, and Emma Meesseman was, too, scoring 11 of her 22 in just over two minutes in the fourth. Elena Delle Donne was clutch as well, leading her team with 25 points and producing the type of crucial defensive plays that helped earn her the league MVP award.
Washington turned all that clutch into a Game 4 clinch, defeating the Aces, 94-90, in a battle that felt worthy of the WNBA Finals, not the round before them.
“Vegas is a phenomenal team,” Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said. “They played us extremely well. It was incredible. They have great fans that come in, pack it, make it hard to play. These are the moments that you dream of playing in. This was a good series, and a great series for our league, too. It felt like a championship, which is good, because it prepares us for Connecticut.”
It was Cloud who sealed the win with a free throw after Dearica Hamby’s attempt at a game-tying three-pointer with five seconds left rolled around the rim and out. The top-seeded Mystics advance to their second consecutive WNBA Finals and will face the No. 2 seed Connecticut Sun, which finished a series sweep of the Los Angeles Sparks with a road win in Sunday’s Game 3. Game 1 of the Finals is set for 3 p.m. Sunday at Entertainment and Sports Arena.
To get past a gritty, proud Las Vegas team and get there, Washington needed to do the things that brought it success all season. The Mystics needed to move the ball well laterally and hit shots from the perimeter. On defense, they had to try their best to keep the ball from getting into 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage’s hands. They executed each of those things well for stretches, sometimes long stretches, of a highly competitive game, but the Aces imposed their will almost as frequently. Cambage fought back with 25 points, and the result was a heart-pounding playoff thriller that went down to the wire.
The difference was that Washington was just a hair sharper down the stretch.
The Mystics shot 47.4 percent from the field to the Aces’ 46.7 percent, and 43.3 percent from beyond the arc to the Aces’ 41.2 percent. Las Vegas owned the rebounding edge 39-29, but Washington kept calm late in the fourth quarter even as the Aces got within one point with 17 seconds to go.
“We talked about putting three stops together, because when we get stops, we can run, and we talked about just continuing to push the pace because at some point they’re going to wear down,” Delle Donne said. “They’re big, so it’s hard to run like that when you’re big, especially when Liz was trying to score every possession on offense. We knew she was going to have to rest on defense, so we just wanted to continue to attack.
“Super excited, happy, going to soak it in, enjoy it, because it’s really hard to get back to the Finals. It’s not easy to get back there, especially when everybody expects you to. So we really want to enjoy the moment.”
Both teams jostled for control from the start.
Washington started out shooting better than it did in Game 3, but the Mystics didn’t get nearly as many good looks as they’re used to: They put up just 17 shot attempts, two fewer than they took in the first quarter Sunday. The Mystics shot just 41.2 percent and Las Vegas ended the quarter leading 26-17 — the first time the Aces led after the first period all series.
It didn’t last.
Washington Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault threw a mix of offensive looks at the Aces in the second quarter to try to get Washington’s offense into gear, including putting guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough on the floor with Aerial Powers, Delle Donne, Cloud and LaToya Sanders. What finally worked was Meesseman reentering the fray.
“Offensively, our spacing was a little crowded [in Game 3],” Walker-Kimbrough said. “When we were able to space out, Emma got great looks, Delle got great looks, and they couldn’t double-team. You’ve kind of got to double the MVP, and they weren’t able to do that. I’ll take her against anybody.”
Meesseman made the difference early in the fourth quarter, going off on her 11-point run to put the Mystics up 83-76 with 6:34 to play. Cambage then got to the free throw line after a layup, and Hamby sealed a small burst that kept the Aces close, trailing just 83-80 with just under six minutes left.
When Meeseman met Thibault in the hallway outside the locker room, he pulled her in for a hug and said, “See what happens when you shoot?”
In an excited but relatively calm locker room — Washington has done this before — the Mystics donned gray WNBA Finals caps and took selfies with one another.
“We’re on track towards the goal that we wanted to achieve, and everybody worked really hard in the offseason and came into this season really focused,” Toliver said. “So to be back where we wanted to be is special. But we want to make that next step. It just gets more exciting from here.”
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