Uncasville, Conn. – The Washington Mystics regained their advantage in the WNBA finals Sunday with a decisive 94-81 Game 3 victory over the Connecticut Sun, highlighted by their playoff and Finals record-tying 16 three-point shots.
They now lead the best of five series 2-1.
While most of the pre-game talk centered on whether MVP Elena Delle Donne would play after missing all but three minutes of Game 2 with a back injury, it was Washington’s guards who led the charge in the third match up. Kristi Toliver and Natasha Cloud combined for 39 points and nine three’s.
For all of Cloud’s shooting brilliance, her greatest contribution may have been on defense. She harassed Connecticut’s Courtney Williams into 2-9 shooting, and limited her to just six points. Williams had averaged 21 points in five previous playoff games.
Washington coach Mike Thibault said Cloud’s early three-point shots set their opponents back and made way for her to lock down on defense.
“When she makes those shots, now you’re kind of in trouble as a defensive team because the plan a lot of times was, well, if we can’t guard everybody, we’ll let her shoot,” Thibault said. “And when she’s making them, now as a coach you’re going, what’s plan B. And we put them in plan B as best we could today. She certainly did.”
Delle Donne played in spurts, running off the court every 4-5 minutes to ride the bike and give her back some rest. When she was playing, it was obvious she was in pain. Thibault said her presence motivated her teammates.
“I think any player, when they see that, they say, well, I can’t complain about anything. I’ve got to play as hard as I can play,” he said. “She’s out there doing what she can do. I think the other thing is it gives them confidence because no matter whether she’s limited and whether she can put the ball on the floor and go by anybody, she’s such a good shooter.”
As a team, the Mystics adjusted admirably from their game two home loss by keeping the Sun off the offensive boards. Second-chance points were the key to Connecticut’s win in that game, which featured 17 offensive boards (of 41 total), and nine by center Jonquel Jones.
“I felt like it was just when the ball was up, I think it was they just didn’t care if they were getting a rebound or not,” Jones said of Washington’s aggressive box-outs. “They were making sure they were hitting me, keeping me off the offensive glass. I think that was the big difference for me this game. And I think it kind of held the team, too, so it hurt us that I wasn’t able to get on the boards.”
Although listed pre-game as “questionable,” Delle Donne actually started the game, and played 26 gutsy minutes in obvious pain. Despite limited mobility, she was able to score 13 points on 5-6 shooting, including 3-4 threes. Her presence on the court and her ability to shoot accurately forced the Sun’s best interior defender, Alyssa Thomas, out on the perimeter with the MVP.
The Mystics were clearly the more aggressive team throughout the first quarter, and shot the ball stunningly well. After an initial miss, they hit three consecutive threes – from three different players – to open the game. They ran their offense nearly perfectly, then hit almost every shot attempt. Most were contested, but they went in anyway, for a 66.7 percent success rate on six threes and six twos.
Connecticut, on the other hand, missed far too many layups, and all four three-point attempts. Jones and Williams were held scoreless in the first quarter. Bria Holmes came off the bench to provide the only positive moments for the Sun, scoring seven points in the quarter and disrupting things defensively.
Washington had a 15-point lead, 32-17 at the break. As in each of the games in this series, that first quarter lead proved decisive. Sun coach Curt Miller felt the spread was too much to overcome.
“All three games have been decided in the first quarter, essentially,” he said. “There hasn’t been a close first quarter in this series yet. So we were always playing catch up in game one, playing catch up in game three. We expended a lot of energy.”
“Washington had to feel the same way in Game 2 after our good start and so first quarters have been the story, regardless of all their made threes and everything.”
Connecticut did pull within four points with a 12-2 run to end the first half, but the effort was draining. The Mystics outscored them in the third quarter, 25-18, to lead 68-57 going into the final frame. When Emma Meesseman, quiet until then, led off the fourth quarter with three consecutive threes, the game was essentially over. She finished with 21 points.
Holmes, Shekinna Stricklen, Jasmine Thomas and Alyssa Thomas scored in double figures for the home team, but stars Jones and Williams combined for just 15 points. Despite 50 points in the paint, the Sun could not overcome Washington’s overall great shooting and 48 points from outside.
Game 4 is 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, and if the Mystics win, they take home the trophy.
Miller tacitly acknowledged that if their opponents shoot well, the Sun cannot answer.
“One of the things they did well in the first half, they didn’t have a lot of assists on their baskets,” he said. “It was a lot of one-on-one plays. They’re shot makers. And they’re doing things that the league’s never seen.”