Washington’s star frontcourt duo delivers late
LAS VEGAS—The Washington Mystics are headed to the WNBA Finals for the second consecutive season.
The Las Vegas Aces, in their first postseason appearance since relocating from San Antonio, made them earn it.
The Aces held a slim lead early in the fourth quarter before Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman scored Washington’s next seven baskets to power an 18-11 run and give them the lead with less than five minutes to play.
Meesseman scored 13 of her 22 points in the fourth quarter after a six-point performance in Game 3 in which she was limited to just eight shot attempts. Her 30- and 27-point performances in the first two games of the series led to Mystics to a 2-0 series lead.
It was only fitting, then, for their missing piece to make the defining plays in crunch time—blocking Liz Cambage in the final minute as the Mystics clung to a one-point lead and coming off a screen to drill a jumper in front of Vegas’ bench to put them up three.
“We set the big play down the stretch for her in the corner in front of their bench,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said postgame. “We kinda dared them to switch a guard out to her, and then we would go at the mismatch.”
Meesseman drilled open jump shots all series, punishing the Aces for giving her even the smallest window to fire away.
After scoring a game-high 28 points in Game 3, Liz Cambage was the focal point once again for the Aces, finishing with 25 points on 10-of-22 shooting.
“I thought Liz played a solid team basketball game,” Aces head coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer said postgame. “She’s mad at herself for missing some easy ones that could’ve turned the tide of the game. That’s a good trait to have for a player—that you take responsibility, which she does. She knows that she’s counted on every game, especially in big games, and she showed up in big games.”
Cambage and A’ja Wilson combined for 49 points in Game 3 and 42 points in Game 1. Wilson finished Game 4 with four points on 1-of-4 shooting and played a mere 2:16 in the fourth quarter.
“A’ja, I think, hit a wall,” Laimbeer said. “I just think the whole season came crashing down on her today. Her energy level was nowhere where it needed to be in a game like this. I don’t fault her. She’s a young player.”
“I can honestly say it was all me,” Wilson said. “It was nothing that Washington was doing. I mean they’re a great team, but I don’t think it was anything they were doing on me defensively that it was like, ‘Oh, my god, they’re taking me out of the game.’”
“I don’t think [Wilson] understood how hard this is—on both sides of the ball,” Laimbeer added. “And I think that just wore on her, and it came crashing down today. She wasn’t able to provide that energy out there today.
“And, by the way, I’ll live and die by A’ja Wilson all day long.”
Ultimately, Washington’s star frontcourt duo delivered to close out the series on the road, refusing to give the Aces a chance in a winner-take-all Game 5.
Game 3 offered a glimpse of just how devastating Cambage and Wilson can be for years to come. The entire series showed just how close their team is to true championship contention.
This Aces season was painted as a learning experience from the jump. Meanwhile, these Mystics took form in 2017. Being swept in back-to-back seasons at the hands of the eventual champions—first Minnesota, then Seattle—helped prepare them for this moment.
The Aces now have an opportunity to follow a similar trajectory, especially after getting a chance to go head-to-head with the team that dominated the 2019 regular season from start to finish.
Washington will host the Connecticut Sun for a Game 1 on Sunday to kick off the 2019 WNBA Finals.
Kristi Toliver (bone bruise) returned to the starting lineup and logged 36 minutes on Tuesday. She ditched the bulky knee brace she had been sporting since her return for the second half.
Which version of her will Connecticut see in the Finals? She still commands a tremendous amount of attention with her ability to shoot it off the bounce. Consistently getting into the lane, or not, can completely change the outlook for the series.
“I just think she’s gotten more aggressive as she’s felt better each game,” Thibault said. “The first game was get the rust off, then the next game was get a little better, and we were ready to put her back in the starting lineup. That was a way we needed to go because she had a little more bounce to her. She’s recovering better each day right now.”
As the Aces transition into the long WNBA offseason, Cambage’s future in the league and with the team will take center stage. The pending restricted free agent spoke glowingly of her first season in Las Vegas.
“It was a very interesting season, but definitely my favorite season I’ve ever had playing in the WNBA,” she said. “And I’m so proud of my team. We had a very up and down season, and the one thing I think we can really take away from this season is the early losses. We lost a few games on the road that, when you look back on it, it would’ve put us in a higher spot when it comes to seeding in the playoffs.
“But this is the first time this team has made it to the playoffs. It’s this team’s second year. It’s the furthest I’ve ever been in playoffs, and I’m just proud. This season has been a learning experience.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been sad that the season’s over. I’m not ready to go home. I love this team. I love my teammates. I love this city. I love all the stuff here. The Aces, hands down the best organization I’ve ever been a part of, definitely, in the WNBA. I’m lucky to be here, and hopefully, they’ll have me back next season because I don’t want to be anywhere else.”
Exactly what the Aces and their fan base, especially with CBA negotiations set to heat up and the 2020 Olympics on the horizon, wanted to hear.
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