The signage in place overhead along the concourses at the Entertainment & Sports Arena reads “SO CLOSE.”
It’s a marketing slogan, supposed to signify the proximity of the fans to the floor, that there’s no bad seat in the house. But as the Washington Mystics’ home court — not quite ready to open for their vagabond playoff run that came up shy in the WNBA Finals last year — it is a place that has provided them with a marked home court advantage all historic season long, bringing them within 40 minutes of a title heading into Thursday night.
About halfway through the third quarter, though, the Mystics suddenly found themselves down nine points, easily the biggest deficit either team had faced in a neck-and-neck game to that point. Washington clawed back, but still trailed by two points after three quarters.
As has been the story all playoffs and season long, the Mystics picked one another up when they needed it most.
After a stunning missed technical foul free throw by Elena Delle Donne, the best shooter from the stripe in the history of the game, Natasha Cloud buried a three to put Washington in front, 65-64. Later in the fourth, Kristi Tolliver drove to the hoop, laying out her body as she flicked the ball skyward, just over the front of the rim, helping erase what had been a forgettable game.
And with just under two minutes to play, the shot clock running down and the offense stagnant, Emma Meesseman put the ball on the floor, powered through a double team, drew the foul, and kissed the ball off the window to put Washington back up eight. As she celebrated, Tolliver leapt into her arms, the crowd reaching a fever pitch.
It wasn’t the death blow, but Tolliver seemed to know it was enough. Connecticut wouldn’t get closer than six points the rest of the way as the Mystics turned the final 30 seconds into a coronation on the court. The difference was enough that, on the final possession, with still nearly 10 seconds remaining, Delle Donne let go of the ball and let it roll softly away as she embraced her teammates, neither team bothering to claim it before the final buzzer.
Despite the best regular season record, despite one of the most dominant performances in WNBA regular season history, there was reason to believe these Mystics might not get there. Tolliver had re-injured her balky knee late in the season. Delle Donne, in what has become a surreal postseason tradition, had slipped not one, but three discs in her back (a fact that Cloud announced to the media after the game).
But they did get there, in large part thanks to Meesseman, who earned Finals MVP for her efforts, and who had a large bruise herself under her left arm when it was all said and done.
By the time Mike Thibault and his players walked into the press conference room, the bubbly had hit the bloodstream. That’s one of the beautiful aspects of a championship moment — a season’s worth of clichés and guardedness and deference and walls between what’s socially acceptable to say while tape is rolling and what isn’t comes crashing down in a genuine outpouring of humanity.
So it was that, before Thibault could go to the podium alongside his newly minted Finals MVP, some housekeeping had to be attended to.
“Mike,” the league PR flack said, drawing his attention to the bottle of champagne still locked in his left hand as he was about to go in front of the cameras. Thibault sheepishly relinquished it, but not without a quip: “It’s mostly gone, anyway.”
There was good reason to celebrate, for a coach and an organization that had never won a title.
“When we came here seven years ago, on the heels of a 5-29 season, this thing was on the brink. To see what’s happened, this building, everything that’s gone with it, so much,” he said. “This is what a family feels like.”
Meesseman, who was referred to all year as the “missing piece” from 2018’s Finals run, said she was confident from Day 1.
“When I first came back from missing last year, I kind of knew in the back of my head we were going to do it,” she said. “The team really changed by that experience, going to the Finals and not winning it.”
That said, Thibault understood there was no given they would get the chance again, and made keeping everyone focused on the task at hand his priority.
“I think the coaches’ job, and I think our players followed along, is to stay in the moment,” he said. “The worst thing you can do is think that because you got there, you deserve to get there again. I think this team was terrific in staying in the day-to-day process.”
By the time the begoggled Cloud, Toliver and Delle Donne made their way out, the party was in full effect. The brashness that followed fit a team that has been the hunted all year, the preseason favorite from Media Day forward, the rare team for whom “championship or bust” actually finishes with the trophy.
When questioned about her social activism and the chorus of “shut up and dribble,” the outspoken Cloud retorted, “Shut up and watch.”
Asked about winning Game 5 in D.C., in front of the home fans, Tolliver was blunt.
“Nobody wanted to win it in Connecticut. Connecticut sucks.”
Lest you think the Mystics weren’t grateful, or deferential to each other and their coaching staff, nothing could be further from the truth. To a woman, they talked about one another as family and spoke about the motivation to win for everyone who had supported them, from their own families, to the coaches, to the roaring fans that showed out to see the season end right.
Everyone entered the ESA Thursday night with a championship so close they could taste it. They left bruised, battered, champions, with the taste of champagne on their lips.