The Washington Mystics, a franchise long defined by losing, now has a winning mind-set. “We don’t feel like we peaked,” all-star Elena Delle Donne said after Wednesday night’s WNBA Finals loss. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

It’s a shame it ended here, in a snarl of post-rush hour traffic in Fairfax County, and too bad it finished Wednesday night, before Washington really got to discover any sort of a rhythm in the WNBA Finals. But in what was a landmark occasion for women’s basketball in these parts — a celebration for a franchise that had, in the not-so-distant past, been rather terrible — the result easily could be distilled: The better team with the better players won, and the season is now over.

No shame in that. None at all. Consider where this season started for the Washington Mystics, with their coach, Mike Thibault, putting a preseason prognostication on the board in front of the players. Seventh or eighth in the league, it said. An afterthought, not playing for a championship.

“Our team took a look at that,” Thibault said, “and said, ‘Hell, no.’ ”

No, the Mystics didn’t get to play the most significant home game in franchise history at its downtown digs, because Capital One Arena is undergoing renovations, or in their new home across the Anacostia River that opens next season. No, the Mystics couldn’t extend the series with the Seattle Storm, because Washington’s Elena Delle Donne couldn’t offset her own Olympic teammate, Seattle’s brilliant Breanna Stewart, and the Storm’s relentless line of shooters.

And so this party at George Mason’s EagleBank Arena was a one-time affair. The Storm had its three-game sweep, 98-82, and so the Storm has its third WNBA championship. The Mystics, with a core that is now tested, are left to try for their first next summer.

Mystics fans cheer during Game 3 at EagleBank Arena. The team will have a new home next season in Southeast Washington. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Listen to them. That’s now not a hope. That’s an expectation.

“We don’t feel like we peaked and this is it,” Delle Donne said.

So even as the Finals swept out of the DMV just as quickly as they swept in, pause a bit to consider what this meant — and whether it might happen again. For this sport in this town, Wednesday’s Game 3 was nothing short of the biggest game involving a local team since the University of Maryland won the national title a dozen years ago. In the history of the WNBA, 13 franchises had reached this stage before this year. Washington was never one of them. For a team that, just seven years ago, went 11-57 over a two-season stretch, that’s not nothing.

“It was a haul,” said Thibault, who took over immediately after those dismal down times and was entrusted with transforming . . . well, everything.

And he kind of did. Delle Donne came over from Chicago before 2017, and point guard Kristi Toliver — a hero on that Maryland team from 2006 — signed here as a free agent. They became the team’s identity, even if that took time to identify.

“We’re still learning each other,” Toliver said.

“I didn’t even know her favorite beer,” Delle Donne said, with Toliver at her side. “Now I can go to the bar and get her everything she needs.”

“I’m going to need a lot tonight,” Toliver said.

“I got you, Panda,” Delle Donne countered, invoking Toliver’s nickname.

So there is a core here now, a core that knows each other’s families and each other’s dogs and what their answers might be in a kill-the-time, airport game of “Would you rather. . . .” Wednesday night was mostly a blowout. But clearly, these players and this team were worth watching. More importantly, they will be worth watching.

“The window for us is open right now,” Thibault said. “. . . That’s the goal for our team now. They know what it’s like.”

So does the DMV — and not just the women’s basketball community. John Wall came out and sat on the baseline. Wizards backcourt mate Bradley Beal sat in another corner of the court. Derrius Guice, the injured Redskins running back, showed up, too (moving surprisingly well on his surgically repaired knee, we might add). This was an event, and when the traffic let up and the sellout crowd of 9,164 funneled in, it felt like one, too.

The problem in this development on this night: Stewart and the Storm wouldn’t allow for a return engagement Friday night.

Seattle came here with the benefit of two home wins, one a blowout and the other a barnburner. Stewart scored 47 points in those two victories. And she was the best player on the court Wednesday — 30 points and eight rebounds, burying four of her five three-pointers, a few at the moments when it seemed as if the Mystics might come back.

Oh, wait. Maybe Stewart wasn’t the best player. Maybe it was her teammate, center Natasha Howard, who had 29 points and 14 rebounds.

“You feel very blessed,” Storm Coach Dan Hughes said.

Hughes is blessed in the present because Stewart has played with point guard Sue Bird — who keeps going at 37 — and Alysha Clark and Jewell Loyd and the rest long enough that there’s cohesion, that there’s chemistry. It’s the model the Mystics are chasing.

The new facility in Southeast will help, and maybe it will help build a fan base that has room to grow. Delle Donne’s first few games at Capital One Arena? It felt cavernous.

“I’m not going to lie,” she said. “It was a little quiet when we came out for our first game.”

The new place, it will be smaller, louder, better. And it will be home, which matters, too.

But that’s next year. Wednesday night was about 2018, about extending the Finals. The Storm led by 17 at half, led throughout, played relentlessly. But with just under seven minutes remaining, Washington reserve Tierra Ruffin-Pratt buried a three-pointer to cut the deficit to five.

Was this possible?

The Storm answered — and decisively. It wasn’t. By the end, Washington’s LaToya Sanders was on the bench, her ankle wrapped, crutches at her side, the victim of a dive for a loose ball gone wrong. Delle Donne came to the bench for the last time to a standing ovation but sat down silently, looking to the floor. Being a year ahead of schedule doesn’t feel glorious when someone else is in the process of taking the trophy you wanted.

When the final horn sounded and the Storm players started jumping on each other, Toliver stood up from the bench, and Delle Donne rose right next to her. They slapped hands quickly, an acknowledgment of what they helped accomplish. They have a future together, and it could be fun.

Wednesday night in the Washington burbs wasn’t how they wanted to play or what they wanted to feel. But maybe, in a year or three, they will look back at it more as a starting point rather than the all-too-swift end to the 2018 season.

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