Minnesota Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeves, center, smiles as she greets Sylvia Fowles (34) as team members begin to celebrate near the end of the second half in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

In this semifinal series against the impenetrable Minnesota Lynx, Washington Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault has said his team's goal every game was simply to be better than its last outing. For a team that added so many key players in the offseason, struggled with injures and finally started flashing its potential at the start of the playoffs, Minnesota felt like a measuring stick.

The verdict, despite an 81-70 loss at Capital One Arena on Sunday that completed a 3-0 Minnesota sweep, was growth.

"When a team shoots 50 percent against you, it's hard to say that you got better, but we got blitzed in Game 1," Thibault said. "We made Game 2 and Game 3 games where they had to win the game, not have it handed to them."

Minnesota's advantages were clear: the experience of its core group and the sheer amount of elite talent on the roster. When Sunday's game was in doubt, Minnesota turned to Sylvia Fowles, the WNBA's newly minted MVP, to step up at exactly the time the Mystics' defense faltered.

The Mystics presented a more balanced offensive effort that had been missing in previous outings and led by one point at the half thanks to a second-quarter surge from Emma Meesseman. The forward scored her first points with just more than five minutes left in the half and had six by intermission to put Washington up 39-38. Her second half wasn't nearly as productive, and she finished with eight points.

The role of third scorer — an issue for the Mystics all season — fell to Tierra Ruffin-Pratt.

The Alexandria native rebounded from a tough Game 2 outing to score 14 points and hit all six free throw attempts in support of forward Elena Delle Donne (15 points, eight rebounds) and guard Kristi Toliver (13 points including two three-pointers).

Even with three scorers, Washington's offense couldn't overcome a tired defensive effort late in the fourth quarter.

The Mystics shrunk a 10-point deficit to four with eight minutes remaining, but Minnesota's best players delivered when it mattered most. The Lynx made 9 of 14 field goals in the fourth quarter (64.3 percent) to build off a late offensive swell. They shot 50 percent from the field for the game and 50 percent from three-point range to Washington's 38.8 percent shooting from the field and 36.4 percent from three.

"They have nothing to be ashamed about," Thibault said of his team. "We've struggled, and that's partly because of their defense."

Seimone Augustus got going after halftime and scored 10 points in the third quarter to aid Maya Moore and Fowles.

Moore had a game-high 21 points , including three three-pointers. Augustus had 18 — she missed just four field goals all night — and Fowles had 17 points and 14 rebounds .

Afterward, talk of missed opportunities on defense or nitpicks about Washington's offense were set aside in an emotional reflection of what the Mystics achieved. It illuminated the disparity in experience between the teams.

The sweep puts Minnesota in its sixth WNBA Finals in the past seven years, against the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks, which completed a three-game sweep of the Phoenix Mercury, 89-87.

"We have taken our first step," a teary-eyed Thibault said, "and hopefully the next step will be a big leap, too."

Toliver and Delle Donne both said they look forward to having a healthy team next year. The Mystics spent much of this season learning one another both on and off the court. Thibault plans on being able to keep the same core group — Delle Donne, Toliver, Meesseman and Tayler Hill, who missed much of the season with an anterior cruciate ligament tear — together next season.

"If you can keep a core together — Minnesota is the perfect example . . . I have 100 percent confidence in this team, and we have enough to make serious noise in this league," Toliver said. "I just want those guys in the locker room to know that we're proud of who we are and where we've come, and I wouldn't choose Minnesota or L.A. or Phoenix over those people in that locker room any day of the week.

"We've learned a lot, we know what winners look like and how they play and how they act and how it feels, and it's great that we were able to, as a group, witness that and compete against that and know we're close."