ATLANTA -- It took 20 years, but they are the star-crossed Mystics no more. Washington is going to the WNBA Finals for the first time, thanks to resilience, persistence and -- finally -- some good breaks going their way.
The Mystics beat the Dream 86-81 in Game 5 of their semifinal series Tuesday at McCamish Pavilion. When they left this building a week ago after a Game 2 loss, the Mystics were feeling upset and worried. Elena Delle Donne had injured her left knee late in that game, and it was hard not to fear the worst.
But Tuesday night, Delle Donne sat in the Washington locker room wearing a WNBA Finals hat with the Mystics logo on it. She finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 4 assists. Her knee was elevated with a bag of ice on it, but she was smiling along with the rest of her teammates.
"Pure joy," Delle Donne said of her emotions when the buzzer when off. "And just being so proud of this team and what we've been able to overcome throughout this season. I've said it a lot, but it's the culture that has gotten us through so much."
"Culture" used to be the last thing that worked in the Mystics' favor. This franchise was 3-27 in its inaugural season in 1998, and it had 12 coaches in its first 15 seasons. The Mystics at times were derisively referred to as "the mistakes."
Then, after the 2012 season, Connecticut fired coach Mike Thibault despite the Sun's making the playoffs in eight of his 10 years there. The Mystics, who'd gone a combined 11-57 the previous two seasons under Trudi Lacey, needed a new coach, and one of the WNBA's most experienced mentors suddenly was available.
The Mystics have made the playoffs in five of Thibault's six seasons. This is his third trip to the WNBA Finals, having made it there in 2004 and 2005 with Connecticut.
"Almost every time we've been challenged this year, we've had a bounce-back," Thibault said of his team's mindset. "Tonight, [the Dream] came back and took the lead on us, and the bounce-back came back again. It's a great accomplishment for our franchise. These players have a lot to be proud of."
Last year, Delle Donne joined the Mystics via trade, and Kristi Toliver -- who had 19 points Tuesday -- came as a free agent the year after winning a WNBA title with Los Angeles. Both wanted to be in Washington because it's close to home. Toliver is from Harrisonburg, Virginia, and went to college at Maryland; Delle Donne is a Delaware native who played for her home state university.
The Mystics advanced to the WNBA semifinals last year, losing to eventual champion Minnesota. This season, they didn't have forward Emma Meesseman, who stayed with the Belgian national team to train for the upcoming FIBA Women's World Cup. She was Washington's second-leading scorer last season, at 14.1 PPG, but the Mystics have been able to make up for that absence.
Undersized center LaToya Sanders, who has battled injury and illness in her career, came in as a veteran post presence. Thibault said he doesn't know what the team would have done without her this season. The Mystics drafted former Texas guard Ariel Atkins, who has had an outstanding rookie season.
Atkins had a huge game Tuesday, scoring a game-high 20 points, with 7 rebounds and 3 assists. She also was part of a pivotal play in the fourth quarter. With 4 minutes, 26 seconds left and Washington leading 75-71, Atkins took an elbow to the face from Dream center Elizabeth Williams. It was inadvertent, but Williams was called for a Flagrant 1 after a review. Atkins hit both free throws.
"So clutch," Delle Donne said of Atkins' Game 5 heroics. "That was one of the most clutch performances I've ever seen -- especially by a rookie. My goodness, she looked like a six-year veteran. She never seems to be afraid of the big moment. She just attacks it."
Mystics forward Tianna Hawkins came off the bench to match her career high with 17 points. In her fourth season with the Mystics and fifth in the WNBA, Hawkins had her best game.
"It's Game 5. It's all or nothing," Hawkins said. "I just tried to come in with a ton of confidence."
Thibault said the Mystics really committed to defense -- with guard Natasha Cloud at the helm of that effort -- after the All-Star break. That was a big factor in their win Tuesday. For a four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter, they held the Dream scoreless. Even so, Atlanta was able to cut it to 82-81 with 24.1 seconds left on a basket by Tiffany Hayes.
"It's about trying to manage swelling because if it swells too much, it's dangerous to play. So that's been the biggest thing. I know I'll push through the pain. It's been about doing a ton of treatment." Elena Delle Donne on her knee injury
Then Delle Donne hit two free throws with 11.5 to go, and the Dream needed a 3-pointer. But their best shooter from long-range, Renee Montgomery, had fouled out with just under a minute left after a night-long battle with Toliver guarding her. Twice, Montgomery had drawn fouls against Toliver on 3-point shots. But the last time she tried it, an offensive foul was called instead, sending Montgomery to the bench.
That left Hayes and Alex Bentley as the Dream's best 3-point shooters. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, the longest-tenured player with the Mystics -- this is her sixth season in D.C. -- was guarding Bentley, who never got her hands on the ball. Hayes launched a desperation shot that missed.
"I think it's just believing in the system," Ruffin-Pratt said of the Mystics' defense. "Just being aggressive, trying to make every catch and every shot tough.
"This is a great feeling. I've been here the longest of this current group. We've been through some ups and downs, so being able to get this far is an amazing feat."
The Mystics needed two more free throws to nail it down, and those came from Delle Donne. The best free throw shooter in WNBA history, Delle Donne is 23 of 23 from the line in this postseason. But even she felt some butterflies with those last free throws that sent the Mystics to the Finals.
"Those were a little nerve-wracking, I'm not going to lie," Delle Donne said. "But I just did my same routine, trusted in the process and let it fly."
She has been doing basically the same thing in dealing with the bone bruise to her left knee. She didn't play in Game 3 in Washington, which the Mystics lost. She was back with 15 points and 10 rebounds in Game 4, which the Mystics won.
"It's about trying to manage swelling because if it swells too much, it's dangerous to play," Delle Donne said. "So that's been the biggest thing. I know I'll push through the pain. It's been about doing a ton of treatment.
"I'm going to have to stick on the same protocol. We seem to have a various amount of treatments that I can do. It's been pretty crazy but so worth it."
"That was one of the most clutch performances I've ever seen -- especially by a rookie. My goodness, she looked like a six-year veteran. She never seems to be afraid of the big moment." Elena Delle Donne on teammate Ariel Atkins
Next the Mystics will travel to Seattle, the No. 1 seed, to start the WNBA Finals on Friday (ESPN News, 9 p.m. ET).
"When you're playing a series like this, it's not all about X's and O's," Toliver said. "It's about effort and enthusiasm, valuing possessions and things like that. The biggest thing for me is instilling that confidence and belief in my teammates.
"There are highs and lows in this sport. When you see a player like [Elena] go down, it stinks. I'm so happy it wasn't as bad as we all thought and she was able to come back. Because her presence means so much to us. I'm glad we were able to power through this series to give ourselves a chance at the Finals because we're a very special team."