Professional Basketball

WNBA Finals: Sun Force Decisive Game 5

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After a dominating first half, the Connecticut Sun fended off a second half charge by the Washington Mystics to win Game 4 of the WNBA Finals by four points, 90-86, in front of an announced crowd of 8,458 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.

Connecticut Sun center Jonquel Jones shoots over the outstretched arms of Washington Mystics forward Emma Meesseman during Game 4 of the WNBA Finals on Tuesday at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

Both teams knew what was at stake – the first championship in team history for the Washington Mystics and a chance to play a decisive Game 5 and still compete for the championship for the Connecticut Sun. It was a matter of who wanted it more, and that wasn’t decided until the game’s final seconds.

At first it appeared that Connecticut wanted it more. Sun forward Alyssa Thomas grabbed the tipoff and raced to the basket for an easy basket to start the game. It was answered by Mystics guard Natasha Cloud’s layup and free throw 15 seconds later, to give Washington a 3-2 lead in the first 20 seconds of the game. It would be their only lead until the beginning of the fourth quarter.

The Sun went on an early 9-0 run with four free throws by Thomas and center Jonquel Jones, a three-pointer by forward Shekinna Stricklen and a layup by Jones. With 6:53 left in the opening period, the Sun had jumped out to an 11-3 lead.

The Mystics began to recover somewhat with five points from forward Elena Delle Donne and two from center LaToya Sanders. Connecticut led 18-10 with 3:49 remaining in the first quarter.

The Sun continued to attack the Mystics defense and went on another 9-0 run to obtain further separation. The first quarter ended with Connecticut leading 32-17. The Sun shot 52 percent in the quarter to Washington’s 30 percent.

So far in the series, the winner of each game scored around 30 first quarter points while the loser was stuck at 17. Game 4 was no different.

Both teams found their rhythms during the second quarter and traded baskets most of the way. However, Washington was hit with offensive fouls to forward Tianna Hawkins, forward Emma Meesseman and Delle Donne in the quarter. Connecticut led 56-40 at the half.

The third quarter was a complete reversal. The Mystics went on a 16-1 run in the first half of the third quarter, completely erasing their first half deficit. The lone Sun point was a free throw by Thomas at the 8:16 mark.  Delle Donne scored four points, forward Ariel Atkins had five and guard Kristi Toliver netted seven during the run, which ended with a jump shot by Stricklin with 5:15 remaining in the third. Connecticut led 59-56.

Both teams traded runs. Connecticut went on a 7-0 run, then Washington answered with a 6-0 run and traded free throws. A banked jump shot by Mystics forward Aerial Powers tied the score 68-68 as the quarter wound down.

Hawkins stole the ball from Sun guard Bria Holmes as the fourth quarter began and then scored a running layup in transition. The Mystics took their first lead since early in the game.  They pushed their lead up to five on a three-pointer by Meesseman with 6:51 left on the clock.

It didn’t last. Stricklen pulled down a rebound on a Delle Donne miss and then bounced a pass to Thomas for an easy transition layup and a 77-77 tie with 5:35 remaining.

The next three minutes saw three ties and two lead changes as the game intensified.

Stricklen hit a three-pointer with 2:23 on the clock which broke the game’s final tie. This was answered by a Cloud layup 13 seconds later. Connecticut held an 87-86 lead.

Washington Mystics guard Kristi Toliver shoots a jumper while Connecticut Sun guard Jasmine Thomas defends during Tuesday night’s WNBA Finals Game 4 in Uncasville, Conn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

Both teams missed shots on their next three possessions because of good defense while the clock continued to wind down. Neither team hit a shot from the field for the remainder of the game.

Cloud fouled Sun guard Jasmine Thomas with 18.4 seconds left in the game. Thomas converted both of her free throws to extend the Sun lead to three.

Cloud then missed a driving floating jump shot which was rebounded by Alyssa Thomas who was immediately fouled by Meesseman. Thomas converted one of her free throws giving the Sun a 90-86 lead with just 10.0 seconds left.

Meesseman missed a driving layup in the paint, which was rebounded by Jones, who held the ball as time expired, which secured the Connecticut victory.

“Well, while we’re excited for the win today, I want to start by giving a quick shout-out to our amazing crowd,” said Sun head coach Curt Miller. “[It was a] huge win for us. [We] weathered a difficult third quarter and was able to withstand that and gather ourselves and have a good enough fourth quarter to send this home, send this back to Washington.”

Connecticut was led by 18 points from Jones. She was aided by 17 from Alyssa Thomas, 16 from guard Courtney Williams, 15 from Stricklen and 14 from Jasmine Thomas. Jones led all rebounders with 13 and Alyssa Thomas dished out 11 assists.

“I think we always knew that we could do this,” said Jones. “I think we were in a tough situation with the single-elimination games [in previous seasons]. I think in a single-elimination game sometimes things don’t bounce your way, things don’t go your way, and so you lose one game and you’re out. Well, we knew we were a team that were able to do this, and we’re not shocked to be here. We’re excited to be here. We understand that we’re one game away from accomplishing our dreams and accomplishing the things that we knew that we could do.”

Powers scored 15 points to lead the Mystics, Atkins had 14, Cloud pitched in for 13, Meesseman netted 12 and Delle Donne 11. Cloud led the Mystics in rebounding with seven and in assists with nine.

“I like the fact that I can play nine people every night and get good results,” said Mystics head coach Mike Thibault. “I’m glad our bench gave us the energy that we needed, but it’s such a disappointing finish.” 

The Sun shot 42.9 percent from the field on 30-for-70 shooting including 7-for-17 in three-pointers and 23-for-26 in free throws. Washington was 33-for-71 from the field including 10-for-21 from beyond the arc and 10-for-13 from the charity stripe. There were four lead changes and seven ties.

Washington Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne prepares to shoot while defended by Connecticut Sun guard Bria Holmes during Game 4 of the WNBA Finals on Tuesday night in Uncasville, Conn. Photo by James C. Garman/Sportspage Magazine

“I think we just changed our way of playing as a team,” said Meesseman. “We moved the ball more around, we cut more, we moved more. So that’s how I got my open shots that I’m used to, I think. Unfortunately not too much in the first half, I did not get my shots I needed to take.”

The series now reverts to Washington for the championship game.

“You dream as a little kid of being in a deciding final game, a Game 7, a Game 5 of a series to win a world championship. If you grew up a basketball fan, these are the moments that you dreamed of,” said Miller. “But we’re having the time of our life right now. Nothing better.”

Jasmine Thomas echoed that sentiment.

“It means a lot. It means everything. Just how hard we fight, how much this means to us, we talked about this whole playoff time like us being disrespected and people thinking we’re just going to give up easy, and we’re not. We’re going to fight every single second because we deserve to win a championship, as well,” she said.

This is the fourth WNBA Finals series for Thibault, who has yet to win a championship series.

“It’s been hard in this series. Whoever digs themselves a hole, every team has come back in this series, both teams have come back.”

Delle Donne knows that a decisive Game 5 makes for good basketball, even though she admitted that she wanted to win it in four games.

“I think it’s great for the league. It’s great for fans. It’s great to get more people excited about our game. So for that, I’m grateful. I think this has been quite the series, and people better be tuning in because this is some great basketball and some really good teams. From that sense, it’s great for this league,” she said.

The WNBA Finals Game 5, which will crown the 2019 champion, is set to tipoff at 7 p.m. CT Thursday night at the Entertainment on Sports Arena in Washington, D.C. It will be broadcast on ESPN2.

NOTES:

Game 5 of the WNBA Finals will crown a first-time champion as neither Connecticut nor Washington has ever won a championship. The last time two teams with no championships faced off in a series was 2011 when the Minnesota Lynx defeated the Atlanta Dream in a 3-0 sweep. Since then, the Minnesota Lynx (4), Indiana Fever (1), Phoenix Mercury (3), Los Angeles Sparks (3) and Seattle Storm (3) have won championships.

The 2019 WNBA Finals is the first time that two Eastern Conference teams have played in the Finals since the current playoff format was adopted. The other time two Eastern Conference teams played each other in the Finals was 1997, the league’s inaugural season. The Houston Comets defeated the New York Liberty 65-51 in a championship game at Houston’s Compaq Center on Aug. 30, 1997. It was the only season that the Comets played in the Eastern Conference as they moved to the West the following year. The league was comprised of eight teams that season and the top four made the playoffs and were seeded based on overall record, similar to the current format.

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