Professional Basketball

Storm, Mystics Advance to WNBA Finals

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The Washington Mystics and Seattle Storm will face off for the WNBA championship beginning on Friday night after both teams won their respective semifinal series on Tuesday night. This will be the first time in eight seasons that the top seeded Storm will be in the Finals, and the first ever trip in 21 seasons for the Mystics.

Here’s how Tuesday’s semifinals series went down:

Washington Mystics 86, Atlanta Dream 81

The visiting Mystics set the tone early by going on an 11-6 run led by six points from forward Ariel Atkins. Atlanta was not going to lie down and answered with a run of their own sparked by seven points from guard Renee Montgomery. When the first quarter was in the books, the score was tied 24-24.

The offenses for both teams heated up in the second quarter as the teams traded jump shots in each of their first two possessions. Neither team was able to find much in the way of separation until a three pointer from guard Kristi Toliver gave Washington a 46-40 lead with 3:58 left in the half. Toliver scored 12 points in the second quarter alone and 15 points in the first half, but Atlanta finished on a 6-0 to take a 50-49 halftime lead. Both teams shot over 50 percent in the half.

Washington guard Kristi Toliver scored 19 points including 17 in the first half to lift the Mystics to an 86-81 victory over the Atlanta Dream on Tuesday night. Washington will face the Seattle Storm in the WNBA Finals beginning on Friday. File photo by Abe Booker III/Sportspage Magazine

The Dream went on a 7-2 run to begin the third quarter, but lost the momentum when center Jessica Breland twisted her right ankle when defending a drive by Washington forward Elena Delle Donne with 5:53 left in the quarter.

Then, Montgomery was called for an offensive foul after initiating contact with Toliver.

The Mystics went on a 16-4 run on the back of Atkins tough defense. She scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in the quarter. The Mystics were six points behind when the run began and six points up, 67-61 when the run concluded.

However, Montgomery had an opportunity for a final shot before the quarter break and drained a three-pointer as time expired, which had Washington leading 67-64.

Montgomery hit another trey with 8:41 remaining in the game which tied the score 67-67. The teams traded baskets and then Dream forward Brittney Sykes made a running layup at the 6:43 mark to give Atlanta a 71-69 lead.

Washington’s defense kicked into high gear and any momentum that Atlanta had was stalled. Washington used an 11-2 run to take an 80-73 lead with 1:41 left on the clock.

The Dream had one more push left in them as guard Tiffany Hayes connected on a layup and was fouled by Delle Donne, but then fouled Atkins a few seconds later on a reach in. After Atkins hit her free throws, Washington held an 82-76 lead with just 1:14 remaining.

On the next possession, Montgomery leaned in while attempting a three-pointer and initiated contact. Instead of getting a block and three free throws, she was called for a charge. This was her sixth foul forcing her to spend the last 59.2 seconds on the bench. Washington center LaToya Sanders missed a shot and then Atlanta guard Alex Bentley hit a three-pointer to tighten the score to 82-79 with 32.0 seconds remaining.

Referee Michael Price called a five-second violation on Washington’s ensuing in-bounds play and Hayes scored on a layup with 24.1 seconds left to cut the deficit to one.

With a one-tenth second game clock to shot clock differential and the ball in Delle Donne’s hand, Atlanta was forced to foul. Delle Donne hit both shots to extend the Mystics lead to three.

Hayes shot an off-balanced three-point attempt that was short, and deflected off of Sykes for the turnover. Sykes then fouled Delle Donne, who went 2-for-2 from the line to secure the 86-81 victory and a trip to the WNBA Finals for the Mystics.

“Wow. We’re here because we’re persistent, we’re resilient and we play together,” said Mystics head coach Mike Thibault. “It’s a great accomplishment for our franchise. Our first time ever to go to the Finals, so these players have a lot to be proud of.” Atlanta head coach Nicki Collen was miffed at the officiating but held her tongue. “Gosh, what a heck of a game and a heck of a series,” said Collen. “Were a few points short of where we wanted to be because we really believed that we could get there,” while declining to say what she’s “not supposed to say.”

She did admit that “it’s hard to win games when you give up 17 offensive rebounds.”

There were 14 lead changes and nine ties during the contest.

“The biggest thing was that we stayed out of foul trouble in the fourth quarter. They never got to the bonus until the last minute and that makes a big difference when you play a little bit more aggressively,” said Thibault.

Washington was led by 20 points, seven rebounds and three assists from Atkins, Toliver added 19 points, Delle Donne led the team with 11 rebounds, and guard Natasha Cloud led the team with five assists.

“Offense wasn’t going to win this game. It was going to come from our defense and our rebounding,” said Toliver. “I think we took that to heart. We stepped up and just made plays.”

Toliver reflected upon her earlier tangles with Montgomery.

“That’s playoff basketball. You do whatever you can. You get whatever edge you can. I played with [Phoenix Mercury guard] Diana Taurasi for three years and I kind of learned some tricks. She kind of fell for them,” said Toliver.

Atlanta was led by Bentley’s 16 points, Sykes and Montgomery added 15 points each, Hayes chipped in for 13 points and four assists. Breland led all rebounders with 12.

Despite the disappointing finish, Bentley remains optimistic for the future.

“It’s been a blessing and I can’t wait to get back with this group of people next year,” she said.

Following the game, forward Angel McCoughtry, who missed the second half of the season and the playoffs due to injury, grabbed a microphone and thanked the 4,435 in attendance at McCamish Pavilion.

“We’ve got a great team. We’ll be back,” said McCoughtry.

Seattle Storm 94, Phoenix Mercury 84

The Phoenix Mercury jumped out to a 22-15 early lead when guard Yvonne Turner went 4-for-6 with two three-pointers in the first seven minutes of play.

As has been the case in this series, Seattle went on a run of their own to tighten the score to 26-22 by the end of the quarter. Both teams shot above 50 percent in the frame.

Phoenix pushed their lead up to 11 when forward Camille Little cut through the lane for a layup with 6:07 left in the half. The Mercury led 40-29.

Bird: Seattle guard Sue Bird scored 14 fourth quarter points and 22 in the game to lift the Storm to a 94-84 win over the Phoenix Mercury on Tuesday night. Seattle will face the Washington Mystics in the WNBA Finals beginning on Friday. Photo by Chuckarelei/Sportspage Magazine

Then Seattle pushed a 10-2 run to get back into the game with eight points by forward Breanna Stewart and trailed 46-41 at halftime.

The teams traded baskets for most of the third quarter. Seattle wasn’t closing the deficit and Phoenix wasn’t finding separation. Then Stewart hit a turnaround jump shot at the 3:54 mark for her 21st points of the game and forward Alysha Clark hit a three-pointer a minute later to tie the game 57-57.

The Mercury responded with a 6-2 run to give them a 63-59 advantage going into the final frame.

Seattle tied the score 63-63 when guard Jordin Canada made a running layup with 8:59 remaining on the clock, and then took their first lead of the night when Canada hit a three-pointer 38 seconds later to give them a 66-63 advantage.

Phoenix then went on a 7-0 run of their own to take a four point lead, 70-66, which was answered by a three-ball from Stewart.

Mercury guard Diana Taurasi hit a three-pointer that was immediately answered by Seattle guard Sue Bird. Phoenix held a 73-72 lead at the 5:48 mark.

The teams exchanged buckets, and leads, during the next few possessions and when Phoenix guard Briann January was fouled by Storm forward Sami Whitcomb, the score was tied for the final time at 76-76 with 4:21 remaining.

Taurasi tried to lift the Mercury on her shoulders again, something she has done numerous times in her career, including in this playoff series. She attempted a three-pointer on the next possession but missed. Phoenix forward DeWanna Bonner, January and Bird were all scrambling for the rebound. It was ruled a jump ball between Bonner and Bird, but Bird was yelling for a foul on January after her facemask was pushed down on her broken nose.

The play was reviewed for the altercation but no foul was issued. Phoenix players and fans thought Bird should have been called for a technical foul for the way she yelled at referee Maj Forsberg, but Forsberg let it go.

On the jump ball, Bonner tapped it behind her and Clark won the tip for Seattle. She dished to Bird who made an open three-pointer to make it an 84-76 Seattle lead with just 2:51 to go.

Taurasi missed another three-point attempt which was rebounded by Clark. Seattle had the momentum and was on a 17-4 run, and this time Taurasi was not going to stop it. When the final buzzer sounded, Seattle took a 94-84 victory in front of a home crowd of 8,992 at KeyArena.

“This team has done a great job of working to stay ready,” said Seattle head coach Dan Hughes who used one of his bench players and an example. “If you would have seen Sami Whitcomb’s workouts, and sometimes I didn’t play her as much, as a coach you know at a certain time it’s going to pay a dividend.” Whitcomb had 11 points and four assists off the bench.

Phoenix head coach Sandy Brondello, a veteran of several playoff series, was gracious.

“It’s been a great series. Sad that we can’t move on, but that’s basketball. We always say, ‘May the best team win’ and tonight Seattle was the best team in the fourth quarter,” said Brondello. “Obviously I’m disappointed. We were right there at the end of the third. Seattle came out in the fourth quarter and were better than us. That’s what it came down to.”

Stewart led all scorers with 28 points and added seven rebounds. Bird scored 22 points and dished five assists with 14 of her points coming in the fourth quarter. Clark led all rebounders with 13.

“Sue’s always one of those players that when a team needs a shot, an assist, a play, she’s always willing to make that play and willing to be in that situation. I’ve seen her do that so many times,” said Mercury guard Taurasi, who was a teammate of Bird’s at UConn and on USA Basketball.

Hughes had praise for his veteran guard.

“Her presence in that moment, I’ve had the pleasure of coaching her this year, there were no finer moments than that fourth quarter and watching her,” said Hughes. “Not only does she carry herself to compete in a certain way, she’s ready for those big moments.”

Regarding the altercation with January, Bird said, “I’m sure you saw me get upset when they knocked my mask off. That hit down onto my nose and then it started bleeding, but otherwise, it’s fine. No biggie.”

When asked about the final stretch of the game, Bird said, “As far as stretches go, I mean, this is up there. I don’t know that I’ve had a fourth quarter like this in as big of a game in my life, to be honest.”

Phoenix was led by 21 points, nine rebounds and six assists from center Brittney Griner. Turner had 19 points. Taurasi finished with 17 points, three rebounds and three assists.

“I feel like this was a series where they felt they could win every game. We felt that we could win every game. We were just so evenly matched in so many ways that it just slipped away from us in that last six to seven minutes. Seattle took it to another level and we didn’t match that,” said Taurasi.

Her coach echoed that sentiment.

“It’s been a fantastic series. We faced a lot of adversity so I’m really proud of my team,” said Brondello.

The 2018 WNBA Finals will feature the top seeded Seattle Storm against the third seeded Washington Mystics in a best-of-five series that begins Friday night at 8 p.m. CT at KeyArena. By virtue of having the top seed, the Storm will have home court advantage throughout the series.

 

 

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