Delle Donne shines in big moments; Mystics advance to WNBA finals

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 4: during Game Five of the 2018 WNBA Semifinals on September 04, 2018 at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, GA. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 4: during Game Five of the 2018 WNBA Semifinals on September 04, 2018 at McCamish Pavilion in Atlanta, GA. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images) /

A remarkable run for Dream comes to an end, while Delle Donne moves on.

ATLANTA — A small contingent of supporters wearing Washington Mystics red cheered from the corner of McCamish Pavilion. There was three-and-a-half seconds remaining in a decisive Game Five of the WNBA semifinals. Their leader, Elena Delle Donne, had just flushed a pair of free throws to give them a five-point lead over the home team, the Atlanta Dream.

They knew it. The game was sealed — thanks to the 6’5 forward who remained calm when the pressure was at its highest.

Still slightly hobbled by a bone bruise on her left knee that she suffered in Game Two of this hyper- competitive series, Delle Donne stepped up when her team needed her the most. When it was time for the best player on the floor to make her presence known, Delle Donne did.

More from Atlanta Dream

The Delaware native and basketball unicorn tallied 14 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocks as she led the Mystics to an 86-81 win over the Dream on the campus of Georgia Tech in Atlanta. With the victory, the Mystics will appear in the WNBA Finals later this week for the first time in the 21-year history of the franchise.

“That’s why I came to D.C.,” Mystics point guard Kristi Toliver told High Post Hoops when it was over. “To make history. To me, it’s very special. It’s special to do it with this group of people.”

While Delle Donne shined when needed, it was a total team effort from the Mystics. Rookie guard Ariel Atkins led the team in scoring with 20 points to go along with seven rebounds and three assists. Toliver added 19 points and three assists and Tiana Hawkins scored 17 points off the bench.

The Mystics corralled 17 offensive rebounds, forced the Dream into seven second-half turnovers and were solid at the charity stripe, making 16-of-19 free throws.

But for sixth-year head coach Mike Thibault, the secret sauce to Washington’s win wasn’t one player or a single stat. It was defense. Thibault said he nearly ran out of time to draw up plays in timeouts, because he was preaching defense every time the Mystics huddled up Tuesday evening.

“We’re here because were persistent, we’re resilient and we play together and almost every time we’ve been challenged this year, we’ve had a bounce back,” Thibault said. “If you can play without fouling, stay on your feet and don’t get pump-faked… Everybody thought of this team early in the year as an offensive team and we made the commitment at the All-Star break that we were going to become a defensive team and we’ve done that.”

Delle Donne rose to the moment

The Mystics trailed by as many as six points in the second half, but crawled, fought and scratched their way back to take a three-point lead to start the fourth quarter.

With 5:22 to play, the Dream had the ball with a chance to take the lead. Elizabeth Williams caught the ball on the wing and the only thing that stood between her and the basket was Delle Donne. Williams charged forward and then spun to post up Delle Donne, but the veteran Mystic poked the ball away, leading to two points on the other end for Washington, via a 14-foot jumper from Toliver.

The Dream continued to challenge Delle Donne. Trailing by seven points, Tiffany Hayes drove towards her and the pulled up for a nine-foot jumper. Delle Donne swatted it away.

With about 100 seconds left and the Dream trailing by five, Delle Donne swished a 13-foot shot over Jessica Breland to extend the gap.

With 11 seconds left, she was fouled. Swish. Swish.

With 3.5 seconds left, she was fouled again. Swish. Swish.

Even when she was hurt, even when she faced arguably the league’s best defense, even when moments were stressful in the biggest game of her career, Delle Donne didn’t just show up and help her team cross the finish line – she grabbed the Mystics and dragged them across it.

“Elena gets us fired up. It’s all about defense. Elena had big plays. (Atkins) had huge plays,” Toliver said. “That’s what’s going to win you championships. When you can get that from, not only Delly, but from everyone, we’re very hard team to beat.”

While she wasn’t the highest scorer on the floor, she was the most efficient, finishing with a plus-minus of +8 in a scrappy and often sloppy game.

“(Delle Donne) gives me a lot (of inspiration) just because of who she is. She’s one of the best people, in my opinion, in the world,” Atkins said. “So, to have someone like that on your team, who is so genuine and to be who she is, it’s amazing. Anything I can do in the game to help take the pressure off her is what I’m going to try to do.”

Dream will be back

Dream head coach Nicki Collen and players Elizabeth Williams and Alex Bentley were emotional during their post-game press conference. They shared hugs, tears and even a few laughs between taking questions from the assembled media.

“This group of people are the type of people that you pray for,” said Bentley, who led the Dream with 16 points. “So, it’s been a blessing. I can’t wait to get back with this group of people next year.”

The head coach pointed to the Mystics offensive rebounds and the disparity between the two team’s trips to the free throw line — 19 to nine — as to reasons why the Dream lost. Collen said she was going to hold her tongue and refrain from criticizing referees.

There were eight fouls called in the final four-and-a-half minutes of the game, including a flagrant on Williams and a decisive sixth foul on Montgomery.

Montgomery’s final foul was called with 59 seconds left. She and Toliver had been jawing back and forth all game and both played physically when guarding each other. On Montgomery’s final play of the game, with Toliver guarding her close, she jumped into her and fired up a three-pointer, attempting to draw a foul. But the referees called it the other way, a charge on Montgomery.

In McCamish Pavilion’s loudest moment of the season, 4,435 fans chanted in unison, “ref, you suck.”

“That’s playoff basketball,” Toliver said. “You do whatever you can. You get whatever edge you can. You know, I played with Diana Taurasi for three years, so I learned some tricks and (Montgomery) kind of fell for them.”

Montgomery finished with 15 points and three assists. Williams had 10 points and seven rebounds, Jessica Breland tallied 12 rebounds, Brittney Sykes notched 15 points and Tiffany Hayes had 13 points, six rebounds and four assists.

But the Dream weren’t sour about the loss as much as they were sad. A year ago, this team won 12 games and was nowhere close to sniffing the playoffs. Add in a new coach and a few new players, they were a few plays away from the Finals.

The Dream know this. Even after a hard loss, they’re happy about how far they’ve come.

“I’m incredibly proud of this team. I’ve said all along we’re further ahead than we thought we’d be when I took this job,” Collen said. “Damn. What a hell of a year. I’m super proud of these guys. These guys have become family for me. They’ve battled for each other and for me. What a heck of a game. What a heck of a series. We’re a few points short of where we wanted to be.”

After the final whistle, the Dream’s injured veteran star, Angel McCoughtry walked to center court and grabbed the microphone to address the fans that came out to witness the playoff loss.

“Hey, we’ll be back. This is not over,” McCoughtry told them. “We got a great team.”

McCoughtry will be back next season after recovering from knee surgery she just weeks ago. Collen will be back too and so will most of the Dream’s core, as many players are under contract for next season. Perhaps the Dream didn’t win a championship, but they did establish themselves as one of the WNBA’s top teams.

As she marched out of a back hallway at McCamish Pavilion, McCoughtry didn’t bid farewell to Georgia Tech’s security staff. Instead, it was a see-you-soon.

“We’ll be back,” McCoughtry said with a laugh. “I’ll see y’all around.”