The Sun’s 90-86 win in Game 4 on Tuesday night at Mohegan Sun Arena, which kept the WNBA title just out of reach for the Washington Mystics, was kind of like a Ferris wheel — if, instead of a gentle ride, a bolt had come loose and players were hanging on for dear life.
Connecticut ultimately prevailed to force a decisive final game of this best-of-five series, which will return to Washington on Thursday for its final spin. Gripping a one-point lead with less than a minute to play, Sun players made good defensive decision after good defensive decision to keep the Mystics at bay.
Game 4 was a tidy microcosm of a series that has been defined by wild swings of momentum. The Sun led twice by large margins — 18 points in the first quarter and 16 in the third — only to see its leads disappear at the hands of the sharpshooting Mystics. Leading by one point with less than a minute to go, the Sun survived by keeping Washington from getting a clean look in the game’s final seconds.
“It’s been hard in this series,” Washington Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault said. “Whoever digs themselves a hole, every team has come back in this series, both teams have come back. But it’s hard when you’re looking at the deficit we were looking at. I think it was 18 at one point, and the fact that we were ahead says a lot of good things, but then our execution once we got the lead was not great.”
Connecticut did well shutting down the three Mystics starters who played significant minutes in the fourth quarter. All but four of the team’s 18 points in the final period came from bench players, and Washington didn’t get to the free throw line once in the final 10 minutes (the Sun went to the line eight times). Elena Delle Donne, playing with a herniated disk in her back that is pinching a nerve, didn’t appear to be looking for her shot as aggressively as she normally might.
Still, the Mystics can take some solace in the fact that the game was close until the end despite all five of Connecticut’s starters scoring in double figures, the Sun outrebounding Washington 39-29 and Connecticut making 23 free throws to the Mystics’ 10.
“If we play our game from the start, we’ll be fine,” starting guard Natasha Cloud said. “We didn’t come out ready to play. It took us until halftime to decide that we wanted to turn it on, and when you’re down 18 and you have to fight back, you get their players back, you get them confident by letting them score and do whatever they want in the first half. We’ve got to be better. . . . It’s do-or-die time now. There’s no talking about it, there’s just doing it.”
Jonquel Jones led the Sun with 18 points and 13 rebounds, and Maryland graduate Alyssa Thomas had 17 points. It wasn’t exactly a problem for the Mystics to allow two Connecticut players to get hot, but permitting high-scoring nights from all five starters spelled doom — especially with neither Delle Donne nor Emma Meesseman contributing their normal number of points.
Delle Donne, the league MVP, had 11 points on 5-for-8 shooting and took just one free throw. Meesseman’s 12 points were crucial to the Mystics’ second-half surge, but she didn’t score before halftime.
Aerial Powers led Washington with a big 15-point performance off the bench, forward Ariel Atkins had 14, and Cloud had 13 points and seven rebounds.
“I was a little looser today, so I felt better,” Delle Donne said of her back. “Hopefully I’ll continue to progress and feel even better Thursday. But, yeah, they were playing more aggressive defensively. They weren’t just letting us sit outside and shoot threes comfortably. So I was trying to just draw attention by driving and hoping to get other people open.”
Washington had to claw and scratch its way through the second half of a potentially title-clinching game that looked out of reach at the start.
After a poor first half, the Mystics erased a 16-point deficit in the third quarter thanks in large part to a barrage of three-pointers. Meesseman had a crucial six points late in the third that gave Washington a needed push.
The Mystics and Sun started the fourth quarter with the score knotted at 68, and Thibault, in a move that both displayed his trust in his team’s second unit and reminded spectators of Washington’s depth, kept four bench players on the floor. Delle Donne didn’t check in until midway through the quarter. By then, the score was still tied.
With Washington unable to complete the comeback, Delle Donne’s team returns home with one last chance to secure the franchise’s first league title.
“I will say this,” Powers said afterward, “the only positive in this is being able to wrap it up at home and being able to celebrate with our fans and our family.”
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