The best two teams of the 2019 regular season put on an offensive showcase to open the WNBA Finals on Sunday in Game 1 at Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C.
The No. 1 Washington Mystics had a slightly better showing of it, withstanding a ferocious fourth-quarter rally by the No. 2 Connecticut Sun to take the first of a best-of-five series, 95-86.
The Sun, who trailed by 17 points halfway through the third quarter, came within four points of the Mystics with five minutes to play, but the Mystics safely put a win away on their home court with motivation from the 2018 Finals sweep by the Seattle Storm.
It’s the first Finals victory for league MVP Elena Delle Donne, who was also swept while with the Chicago Sky in 2014. She had a double-double of 22 points and 10 rebounds with five assists, one steal and two blocks and now has more than 600 career postseason points.
Ariel Atkins scored 21 points, including 14 in the first half, on near-perfect shooting to guide the Mystics. She was 6 of 7 overall, including 3 for 4 from 3-point range, and made all six free throws.
“I knew that they were going to pay a lot of attention to Emma [Meesseman] and Elena and I knew I’d be open on the back side, so just do what I needed to do to win this game,” Atkins told ESPN’s Holly Rowe in the postgame interview.
Meesseman had a quiet game again with 11 points, but unlike the semifinals loss to the Aces, the Mystics were able to find other players to carry the load.
Another Atkins 3-pointer puts game safely away
The Sun stayed within four points for much of the first part of the fourth quarter and had a chance at making it a bucket game. Instead, a missed shot translated to a Delle Donne rebound and ensuing jumper to put it to six. Atkins drilled one of her three 3-pointers from the corner with 4:09 on the clock to allow the Mystics a feeling of safety.
Veteran Kristi Toliver, who was mic’d up, could be heard yelling “there it is” as the Sun flooded the paint for help defense and Atkins took her time. Toliver and Delle Donne each made short jumpers to take a 89-76 lead that they held on to despite the Sun’s best efforts.
Where do you go to find an answer?— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) September 29, 2019
🔘 MVP pic.twitter.com/h3OEDXJhxl
Rowe asked Atkins how the Mystics were able to close out the game, despite the Sun’s four-point gap, and her answer says all anyone needs to know about this team’s motivations.
“We lost to Seattle last year,” she said.
The Sun scored seven consecutive points to come within single digits and ended the third quarter on a 9-2 run to trail, 76-66. They played a comparable game to the Mystics in the box score — the rebounds, steals, blocks and turnover totals with either identical or different by one — but committed more fouls and could never quite overcome the Mystics’ flood of offense.
The Sun shot 48.5 percent overall (33 for 68) to the Mystics’ 54.0 (34 for 63) and were 9 of 23 from 3-point range to 10 of 21. At the free-throw line, they were 11 of 14 while the Mystics scored 17 points off 21 attempts.
Courtney Williams scored a game-high 26 points and shot 6 for 9 from the 3-point line, though she went cold down the stretch when the Sun needed it. Williams had five rebounds and five assists.
Alyssa Thomas scored 20 points with six rebounds, six assists, five steals and a block to lead the Sun. She was the only player on either side to play all 40 minutes.
Mystics, Sun set historic first-half offense
The Sun came into the series aware that one of the Mystics’ largest assets is going on lopsided runs, driving up the score and continuing to capitalize as opponents become frustrated. They didn’t allow that to get to them in the first half and kept pace.
Connecticut shot 60.6 percent (20 of 33) from the floor, slightly trailing the Mystics (21 of 33) and closed what was at one time a 13-point gap.
Alyssa Thomas went on a similarly perfect run, going 7 for 7 from the field for 15 points to tie Williams atop the Sun’s stat list. Williams went 3 for 4 from 3-point range.
Washington was 6 for 11 from 3-point range and 7 for 7 from the line to hold the 55-46 lead at the half. The Sun shot 4 for 9 and 2 for 3, respectively. Combined they shot 62 percent, a WNBA Finals record for one half.
Sun head coach Curt Miller was asked postgame what was going through his head during the offensive showing.
“This is why the two of us are here,” he said. “We can execute offensively. And that’s going to be the challenge for both of us all series: Can we string stops together?”
Ariel Atkins was a perfect 4 for 4 from the floor, including two from distance, and 4 for 4 from the free-throw line to lead the Mystics with 14 points. Delle Donne also laid in 14 in the first half with four rebounds.
The Mystics used Sun miscues to take a 30-17 lead through 10 minutes. They went on a 12-0 run stemming from three consecutive Sun turnovers, a traveling call and a missed pull-up jumper with 11 seconds still left on the clock. Each team had nine turnovers and 10 rebounds by the half.
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