How Emma Meesseman became a champion
WASHINGTON — “The missing piece,” Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said at the start of his victorious postgame press conference on Thursday night, wrapping one arm around WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman. “This girl right here was one of the first pieces.”
Seven years after Thibault drafted Meesseman as one of his first roster moves in charge of the Mystics, she scored 22 points in Game 5 to lead Washington to its first-ever WNBA championship.
“She was the difference,” guard Kristi Toliver said simply. Point guard Natasha Cloud added 18 points and 5 rebounds, and regular-season MVP Elena Delle Donne had 21 points and 9 rebounds while playing with not one but three herniated discs in her back—a detail that was not public until Cloud revealed it after the game. (“The medical staff is going to kill you,” Delle Donne responded with a laugh.)
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Throughout the 2019 season, the Washington Mystics’ slogan has been “Run it back,” a reference to the team’s loss in the 2018 Finals. Meesseman has often been called the missing piece because she sat out the 2018 WNBA season to play with the Belgian national team and to rest. In the playoffs, she validated every bit of those expectations, averaging 21 points per game in the semifinals and 18 points per game in the Finals.
However, the Mystics would likely not have “run it back” this year if the only change they made was plugging the Meesseman from 2017 into the Mystics’ lineup from 2018. The Connecticut Sun were too strong of a team for that; they nearly won the title on Washington’s home court as it was, leading by two points entering the fourth quarter of Game 5.
The Mystics won a championship because every player was a better version of themselves in 2019 than in 2018. Toliver explained that, in the offseason, “everybody did their part, whether they were here in America or they were playing overseas. Everybody knew the goal and the purpose, and everyone trained that way.”
In 2019, Meesseman set career-highs in points per 40 minutes, 3-pointers made and attempted per 40 minutes, offensive rating, and player efficiency rating. Delle Donne registered the first 50-40-90 season in WNBA history. Cloud set career-highs in nearly every statistical category and was a candidate for WNBA Most Improved Player for the second straight season. Tianna Hawkins and Aerial Powers had career years off the bench, and third-year guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough completed her transformation from offensive star in college to a player who impacts both sides of the ball.
“There’s a process to getting this done,” Thibault explained after Game 5. “It’s individual work, it’s teamwork, it’s video work, it’s scouting reports … and I think the one thing that this team can say is that we got better all year long.”
The team also figured out how its pieces best fit together in Delle Donne’s and Toliver’s third season in DC. Delle Donne and Meesseman, both natural power forwards, had to learn how to play together. This season, they frequently played in a three-forward lineup alongside center LaToya Sanders, and late in Games 4 and 5 of the Finals, Delle Donne and Meesseman played at the four and the five, respectively, leading the Mystics to a Game 5 win on a night when the team made just four 3-pointers. On the perimeter, Cloud and Toliver—both point guards—went from competing for the starting spot to starting alongside one another, sharing the ballhandling duties and complementing each other’s strengths.
As the Mystics improved individually and collectively, another lesser-noticed reason they made franchise history on Thursday night was because of a woman who has been around the Mystics and around women’s basketball almost since the beginning. Assistant coach Marianne Stanley won national championships as a player at Immaculata College in 1973 and 1974 and played in the first-ever nationally televised women’s college basketball game in 1975. She coached at the college level for over 20 years and has coached in the WNBA for nearly that long.
Thibault is rightfully getting a lot of credit for leading Washington to a championship, but Stanley has seen it all with the Mystics. She joined the team as an assistant coach in just its fourth season in 2001, and a year later, as the team’s head coach, she won WNBA Coach of the Year. She left the Mystics after the 2003 season but rejoined the team in 2010, and she was an assistant during some of the team’s most trying seasons in 2011 and 2012 before Thibault arrived and rejuvenated the franchise.
“It’s kind of run the gamut of experience,” Stanley reflected before Game 5, “but I’ve always felt that Washington could be a place that could put everything together to win a championship, so I’m really excited that this team has worked so hard and positioned themselves to be in this series, to be in Game 5 here at home. … Today is a game that you work not just this year but for a long time to get to, so it’s a great feeling to be in [this] position. Now we just gotta go and perform at our best.”
The Mystics did perform at their best, thanks in no small part to Stanley. After the game, Delle Donne called Stanley “an X’s and O’s genius. I don’t know if people know that about her, but she drew up in practice one day like 10 out-of-bounds plays … and we scored every single time, like wide-open threes or wide-open lay-ups. … I’m not in the coaches’ meetings, but I’m sure she has had a ton to do with this [championship] and why we’re so great, why our offense is flowing so well.”
The Washington Mystics made history throughout the regular season with that fluid offense, and on Thursday night, they did it again by claiming their first WNBA title. Meesseman was the missing piece, but the Mystics needed all their pieces, from Delle Donne to Walker-Kimbrough to Thibault to Stanley, to solve the championship puzzle that eluded them a season ago.
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