Atlanta – Depth has been one of the Atlanta Dream’s calling cards all season long, and Tuesday it came up handy. In a game the Dream desperately needed to win to avoid heading to Washington down 2-0, they found contributions throughout their roster to eek out a 78-75 victory and even the WNBA semifinals series between the teams.
Alex Bentley scored 22 points for Atlanta, while Jessica Breland had 10 points and 14 rebounds and Elizabeth Williams, 10 points and 11 boards. Elena Delle Donne led three Mystic players in double figures with 27 points and 14 rebounds before going down with a knee injury late in the fourth quarter.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Dream head coach Nicki Collen—the newly minted WNBA Coach of the Year—said. “You can’t get swept at home and expect to go on the road and win two.”
Breland and Williams helped Atlanta out-rebound their opponents, 44-26, with 25 percent of those boards on the offensive end. Washington coach Mike Thibault said that was the difference down the stretch.
“I thought maybe the one difference in [the Dream] getting back in the game, or keeping them in the game, was their offensive rebounding,” Thibault said. “Elizabeth Williams and Breland had eight offensive rebounds between them, that kind of hurt us on the second shots.”
Breland was also a force on the defensive end with seven blocks, including an obliteration of Mystic rookie Ariel Atkins near the end of the third quarter, when Breland took the ball out of the air and started a fast break for Atlanta. That block – one of three by Breland on Atkins – came in the midst of a 12-2 Dream run to end the quarter, and it galvanized the home team and helped prevent Washington from running away with the contest.
“My teammates react a lot to me blocking shots and my defense,” Breland said. “Everyone on the bench was really hyped about that.”
Offensively, Atlanta was boosted by Alex Bentley off the bench, who led the team in scoring for the second straight contest, pouring in 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Bentley also stole a pass from Atkins to Kristi Toliver with a two-point lead and 14.9 seconds remaining.
“Alex Bentley is a spark off the bench for them, so we need to be prepared and ready to check her when she comes in the game,” Mystics guard Natasha Cloud said. “These two games, she’s hit early shots. If we can disrupt her early, get into her, and pressure her, I think that makes a difference.”
Bentley was not as pleased with her performance, citing her five turnovers as evidence of bad decision-making. Tiffany Hayes also had more turnovers than assists, though she had a more efficient shooting performance to score 17 points in the win.
Imani McGee-Stafford and Blake Dietrick both saw minutes after not playing in the first game Sunday, which Atlanta lost. McGee-Stafford made two timely jumpers and effectively spelled the starting frontcourt for eight minutes, and Dietrick capably defended her position.
Nevertheless, even with a strong effort from nine players for the Dream, Washington was four points away from returning home with a chance to close out the series. The Mystics had the lead with just over three minutes to play and Delle Donne driving to the basket when the star forward slipped and appeared to hyperextend her left knee, forcing her miss the remainder of the game.
Toliver, who was visibly emotional in the postgame press conference, scored on the two ensuing possessions, but Washington was unable to generate enough offense without its leading scorer. Toliver had a chance to tie the game on the final possession down three, but the Dream were able to double team and made one last defensive stand to secure the win.
Atlanta switched all screens involving Delle Donne in game 1, but went away from that strategy in the second match up, instead opting to send doubles at the All-Star. It was ultimately ineffective, and if Delle Donne is able to return in the next game, the Dream — the league’s best defensive team during the regular season — will have to figure out another way to contain her.
After a split in Atlanta, the Mystics would have had the upper hand heading back to Washington, but Delle Donne’s injury creates uncertainty moving forward. The Mystics hadn’t yet had time to process their best player’s status after the game, and the only information available was that Delle Donne had hurt her left knee and would be evaluated Wednesday.
Collen and the Dream are expecting the former MVP to return for game three Friday, and will prepare as such.
“This team has bounced back from hard defeats in the second half of the season,” Collen said. “Now we’ve got to go on the road and steal one.”