As Elena Delle Donne came out of the Washington Mystics’ elimination game for the final time Wednesday, she kept her eyes trained straight ahead and grabbed a towel to drape over her shoulders. Around her, a sellout crowd of 9,164 screaming fans at George Mason’s EagleBank Arena gave her a standing ovation, but the pain of a 98-82 loss to end Washington’s first trip to the WNBA Finals was too fresh.
It took a few minutes for the hurt to subside. But when it did, Delle Donne took stock of what that crowd meant.
“Not going to lie — it was a little quiet when we came out for our first game. And now look at it,” Delle Donne said. “. . . I think we’ve really grown this fan base. They’re behind us. They’re proud of us. They know we’re not satisfied, and we want to do more.”
The reaction inside the Mystics’ locker room was similar Wednesday night after the Seattle Storm completed a three-game sweep of the best-of-five Finals to claim its third league title in franchise history. The room was quiet, with most players tucking into dinner or staring at their phones. But there were no tears. Only pride in players’ voices when they spoke of how much they had grown.
“They know that what they did this year was special,” Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said.
Washington, which added Delle Donne and Kristi Toliver at the beginning of last season in a roster rebuild, was picked to finish eighth in the league at the beginning of the season. The Mystics were without key player Emma Meesseman, who took the 2018 season off to avoid burnout, and leaned on a rookie to be their third go-to scorer for the back half of the year.
Making it to the Finals exceeded even their own expectations. As Thibault put it, his team was about a year ahead of schedule.
“They should be excited about the future. . . . I’m just so excited for where they got. I’m sorry for our fans that they didn’t get to witness one more Finals game here, but for those fans who have waited 20-something years, they should be excited about what they have going forward for this team,” Thibault said. “These players have bought in. They’re trying to do the right thing, and we’ve come a long way.”
The Mystics made a late run in a game that looked to be decided by halftime, cutting an 18-point third-quarter deficit to five in the final period, but ultimately couldn’t stay with the Storm.
Delle Donne led Washington (22-13) with 23 points, and Toliver had 22 in front of Brenda Frese, her old college coach, and former Maryland teammates, but Washington’s stars were no match for Seattle’s.
Breanna Stewart — playing in front of her college coach, Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma — had a game-high 30 points (including four three-pointers) and was named Finals MVP. Natasha Howard added 29 points and 14 rebounds, and point guard Sue Bird added 10 points.
Howard was a perfect complement for Stewart, who helped get Seattle start well on the defensive and offensive ends. Delle Donne looked a hair slower than usual on the defensive end, probably owing to the brace on her left knee to protect a bone bruise.
The Storm (27-8) looked a step quicker and never backed off. Seattle outrebounded Washington 39-28 and was relentless on defense. The Storm owned the second quarter, outscoring Washington 27-14 to take a 47-30 lead into intermission.
The Mystics’ first-half struggles were familiar and could be attributed to poor three-point shooting, a bugaboo for them throughout the series. Meanwhile, Seattle, the league’s best team from long range during the regular season and the playoffs, went 8 for 15 in the first half (the Storm finished 13 for 26 for the game) and struck when it hurt Washington most, killing momentum.
Even more deflating was when the Mystics lost starting center LaToya Sanders less than three minutes into the second half. Playing with a broken knuckle suffered in Game 3 of the semifinals against Atlanta, Sanders dove to save a ball and ended up crumpled next to the Mystics’ bench.
She was carried off the court by members of Washington’s medical staff, who treated her for a sprained ankle.
She sat in the locker room next to second-year pro Shatori Walker-Kimbrough afterward, the two quietly chatting. The room, even in its silence, had changed since a new group of players were thrown together last year.
Even after the defeat, Sanders and Walker-Kimbrough shared quiet giggles over a joke. Toliver and Delle Donne cracked jokes on the lectern in front of the press. The Mystics felt like a cohesive unit.
In the face of Seattle’s forceful offensive lineup — the Storm shot 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the three-point arc — Washington admitted it simply didn’t play well enough Wednesday. Thibault acknowledged his team needs to take another step.
“One of the things that Seattle has better than everybody else in the league right now is they can always have a lineup on the floor with five scorers that put the fear of God in you,” he said. “We have to get to that point, too.”