FAIRFAX, VA – All the magic in the world couldn’t help the Washington Mystics on Wednesday night.
Despite pulling within five points with six and a half minutes left, the Mystics were unable to keep up with the firepower of the Seattle Storm, who closed out the WNBA Finals with a 98-82 win at George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena to claim their third WNBA championship, and first since 2010.
Breanna Stewart, who won the regular season MVP, was also named the Finals MVP after leading all scorers with 30 points in Game Three. For Stewart, this was her first championship since going 4-for-4 with the University of Connecticut. And to hear her tell it, she was proud to bring it back for the loyal Storm fans.
“Seattle deserves to have this trophy back,” Stewart said immediately after the game.
Washington took the offensive to start the game, kicking things off with a Kristi Toliver turn-around jumper. Elena Delle Donne made another jump shot shortly after to give the Mystics a 4-0 lead, but Seattle came charging back. Natasha Howard went on a 7-0 run to give Seattle the lead, who would play tug-of-war with the Mystics for most of the quarter before ending with a 20-16 lead.
Howard, who finished with a career-high 29 points and 14 rebounds, talked after the game about how her experience in the last three WNBA Finals (winning in 2015 and 2017 with the Minnesota Lynx) helped prepare Seattle for this type of pressure.
“You know, the opportunity that I had with Minnesota playing behind great players, as well, learning behind some Olympians and bringing it over to Seattle, as well, it helped our team a lot with my experience being in the Final Four the past four years and also winning a championship last year, helping our teammate out and also with Sue, she had the experience, as well,” Howard said. “It’s just amazing. It’s just a special group.”
The second quarter saw more of a balanced scoring attack from the Storm, who made four three-pointers in the quarter. Between Howard, Stewart and Alysha Clark, they made eight of the team’s 13 three-pointers in the first half. Going into halftime, the Storm led the Mystics 47-30.
Seattle head coach Dan Hughes talked after the game about the trio’s performance.
“It’s interesting because if you watch the evolution of this team they kind of went from, okay, we’ve got some talent, so okay, we’re a pretty good team, so okay, now we’re in first place, and now there’s going to be some tough games down the stretch,” Hughes said. “What are we learning? I went right back to the last series we had because that series with Phoenix was really important for us, really important for us in a lot of ways. We won the two home games, went on the road, last two, and I remember saying to the team maybe there was a reason we had to go on this journey to understand how tough it’s going to be and what we’re going to do, and when we got to that moment, I thought, okay, here’s the chance. Did we learn something? Are we going to play to our strengths? And they did. And they did.”
Washington head coach Mike Thibault also gave his two cents on the combination of Howard and Stewart.
“They’re really good players. I mean, I don’t have any better answer than that,” Thibault said. “I think Natasha Howard is the biggest difference between their team last year and this year on the court, and I think Dan Hughes made a big difference off the court. I thought he did a terrific coaching job. Defensively they had a better identity this year. But I think Natasha is just so active. She was the perfect complement to Breanna Stewart. The two of them learned how to play off each other. They’re both active and mobile, and Natasha Howard has a will about her to get on the boards and to move and cut.”
The Mystics, whose season was hanging in the balance, began to act with more urgency after halftime. Kristi Toliver scored nine of her 22 points in the quarter, helping the Mystics outscore Seattle 23-22. Despite her best efforts, however, Seattle still held a 69-53 lead going into the final frame.
With only 10 minutes separating Washington from a potential Game Four or the end of the season, the Mystics went into fight mode. Delle Donne scored six straight points to kickstart Washington’s comeback attempt, then Tierra Ruffin-Pratt got in on the scoring action. Two consecutive three-pointers (along with a pair of free throws from Toliver) put the Mystics within five with 6:49 left, the closest Washington would get to Seattle.
Breanna Stewart buried a pull-up jumper with 6:34 left to give Seattle a 74-67 lead, and from there they never looked back. Stewart talked about that sequence in the fourth quarter and gave some insight as to how Seattle managed to maintain their lead.
“You know, we knew at halftime when we were up whatever it was, 16, 15, whatever it was, that they were going to make a run, they were going to make a push,” Stewart said. “They’re not in the Finals for no reason. Obviously, D.C. is a great team, and what they have going is going to be exciting for them in the future.”
“But when it got to eight, we kind of — we were calm,” Stewart continued. “We had a calm presence about us. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. Sue told us in the huddle that it wasn’t going to be easy basically, and it was just how we reacted, how we countered that and we knew — we got to this point for a reason, also, and it was Game 3 of the Finals, and we were going home with a championship.”
Seattle finished the game on a 24-15 run to lock in the team’s first championship in eight years, something that wasn’t lost on Sue Bird. Bird (10 pts, 10 AST), who has been on all three championship teams during her 16-year career, talked very highly about the Seattle fans and how they’ve stayed loyal through everything.
” Yeah, man, they’ve been everything,” Bird said. “I think the best way to sum it up is when we made the Playoffs and we knew we were going to have home-court advantage, I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of a sudden I was like, oh, my God, we haven’t had a home playoff game since 2012, and then I was like, wait a minute, we had to play in Tacoma in — yeah, 2013.”
“So we haven’t had a home playoff game in KeyArena since 2012, and what did I say, I was like, guys, I’m so excited for you that you’re going to be able to experience a Seattle home playoff game,” Bird continued. “And the fans didn’t disappoint. The semis was amazing. Our first two games in the Finals was amazing. Just their support, the numbers. You had some big names come out and support us, as well, in the community. I don’t know, just everything on social media, just everything about the way Seattle embraces us, the way they support us, it really allows us to play our best when we’re at home. And that was evident.”
Breanna Stewart was named the Finals MVP after averaging 25.7 points per game during the series. Natasha Howard, who won her third championship in four years, averaged a double-double with 18.6 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.
For the Mystics, getting swept in their first-ever Finals appearance wasn’t the best way to go, but according to head coach Mike Thibault, this was a good first step in the right direction.
“You know, it’s been a great season for our organization, for our players, and we had a lot of growth,” Thibault said. “We’d like to have taken that one last step, but the window for us is open right now. We have a relatively young team. We have only played together with this core group basically for two years, and we have some reinforcements coming next year. And so we’re poised to get better.”
Elena Delle Donne, who fought through lingering knee issues during the series, was optimistic about the Mystics’ season despite the loss.
“Yeah, I mean, we had a great season,” Delle Donne said. “I’m super proud of the way we bounced back from a lot of adversity that we faced all season long. Obviously, this Finals didn’t go the way we wanted it to, but I think the great thing is that we can still improve.
“We don’t feel like we’ve peaked and this was it for us,” Delle Donne continued. “We feel like we’ve got a lot of young, great talent, and obviously this isn’t how we wanted it to end, but it’s an experience that we can grow from. So hopefully everybody goes off to wherever they’re going this off-season but continues to improve, get better, and then come back and regroup and build off of this season.”
The Seattle Storm, with their young duo of Stewart and Jewell Loyd, looks to be a heavy favorite to defend the championship next season, and with both the Los Angeles Sparks and Minnesota Lynx needing some serious roster overhaul, the sky is the limit for Seattle.
Before joining The Ball Out, Chris Bullock was part of SB Nation’s Swish Appeal for nearly three years, covering everything women’s basketball. Chris has had the honor of doing live coverage of the WNBA Finals, the NCAA Tournament, and also was given his own column, “The Triple Double”. A self-described “foodaholic”, Chris lives in the San Diego area with his wife and two daughters, and also hosts his own podcast, “Conscious Cravings”, where he speaks about his experience as a mental health advocate.