Washington, D.C. – In a battle of a game that featured nine lead changes and 15 ties, it was the Washington Mystics who were able to pull away from the Connecticut Sun in the final minutes of Game 5 Thursday, winning their first WNBA Championship, 89-78.
Emma Meesseman, who was named Finals MVP, came off the bench to lead four Washington players in double figures, with 22 points. Elena Delle Donne scored 21, including four in a critical 8-0 run with less than three minutes to go that put her team up 80-72. Connecticut could not recover.
Jonquel Jones led the visitors with 25 points, while Alyssa Thomas scored 21 and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Press conference quotes:
MIKE THIBAULT: Wow. The missing piece (puts arm around Emma Meesseman). I’m just so happy for all these players and the organization who bought into what I was selling seven years ago, that there was a path to get out of what was a pretty desperate time here. And if people would buy in, the path would get accelerated. This girl right here was one of the first pieces. One of our draft picks that — the maturity and growth that she’s shown since she showed up as a 19-year-old — what the heck are you now, 26?
EMMA MEESSEMAN: Yeah.
MIKE THIBAULT: 26, and she’s still a youngster. How much her confidence has grown, what a great teammate she is. I think one of the best things about this team is the camaraderie and the family atmosphere on this team. They love each other. They played for each other. When we had our toughest moment tonight in the third quarter, we banded together, played like we had all year. Obviously Emma and Elena [Delle Donne] and Kristi [Toliver] and others, Tash [Natasha Cloud], that group that was on the floor, Ariel [Atkins], both Ariel/Aerials. I didn’t sub much in the second half. LaToya [Sanders] and I think Aerial Powers might have been the only other ones that played besides the group I just mentioned, and they just were warriors. We’ve talked about that all year, that stay in the moment, be who you are, and they were. They stayed true to character down the stretch, and I’m just so proud. I’m happy for our fans. I don’t know whatever it was, 21, 22 years, I don’t even remember, there’s a lot of people that stuck with this group, and 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 else that’s gone with it, I appreciate it so much. And everybody in this organization, the [Washington] Wizards, the Caps [Washington Capitals], everybody has supported us. You saw John [Wall] and Brad[ley Beal] there tonight, they’ve been on board with us, and this is a great feeling. This is what a family feels like.
Q. Mike, you actually had some time to sort of think in the last 30 seconds there because it didn’t come down to a buzzer beater. I’m curious what was going through your mind as the clock was running down —
MIKE THIBAULT: Making free throws. Oh, before that. The last 30 seconds? I turned and looked at my staff, Eric [Thibault] and Marianne [Stanley] and Maria [Giovannetti] and all those guys down there and all the work that they’ve done behind the scenes, I felt great in that moment because that’s not what everybody sees. It’s all the glamour part that everybody sees. But I see Natasha and Elena and those guys in the gym in January with Eric or Maria or somebody working on stuff, I thought about all of the little things that have to go into putting the team together and how happy I was for that whole group. And I was looking at fans who I’d seen since the day I came here. I looked across the way, there were people sitting in the front row who had been there since I came here, and to see the joy on their face — that’s what this is all about. We’re an entertainment business, but entertainment and all that satisfaction was incredible.
Q. Emma, during that decisive period of time in the third quarter where you had an opportunity to consistently drive the ball, score the ball, was this going to be something that would have been in your skill set and something you would have done as recently as a year ago? Or is this part of what we talked about earlier this year of finding a different level for yourself?
EMMA MEESSEMAN: I just really, really wanted to win this game, so I just came on the court, and I knew that it was a moment that we needed some energy, and I was just going at the basket, and it was going in, so I just kept going. Coach has been talking about, if your shot is going in, or even if not, you just have to take your opportunity, and I don’t think that I would have done this a year ago or two years ago in the past. I think that these playoffs were the moment that I really realized that I have to take my responsibility and I can play. So that’s just what I did, you know. But it’s really not something that I would have done the past few years.
MIKE THIBAULT: She’s one of the top players in the world.
Q. From day one, from media day, the motto of this team has been “Run it back.” I’m curious, now that you’ve achieved the goal that you all set out for, what that motto did to fuel each of you personally, if you could share something that you feel you improved on this year because of that motto and because of the team camaraderie behind it?
EMMA MEESSEMAN: When I first came back from missing last year, I kind of knew in the back of my head that we were going to do it because I felt the difference the past few years. It was that being hungry to take that last extra step. So “Run it back” is the exact way to describe our team and our season this year. The team really changed by last year, by that experience of going to the Finals and not winning it. I think that motto was the perfect motto for us, just to motivate us to do that.
Q. Elena and Natasha, how does it feel to finally win a championship?
ELENA DELLE DONNE: I mean, it feels phenomenal. I’ve like asked Panda [Kristi Toliver] about it, like how does it feel? What’s it like? Panda, how can I get one? But my goodness, this feels so good. It’s hard to even put it to words, but to win this and win this with such a great group of people, I think that’s what makes this so special. We wanted to win this for the person next to us. It wasn’t about winning it for ourselves, and to get this done and to get this for somebody like Toya [LaToya Sanders], who’s an absolute anchor for this team, that’s what means the most, and that’s what we’re going to take away, and that’s what we’ll remember forever. We’re going to remember this season because we were around such incredible people, and we absolutely adore being together. So I’m kind of sad, like the season is about to be over, I’m going to miss everybody, but my goodness, we sure ended this on a high note.
Q. Natasha, in terms of fun, you guys have talked a lot about enjoying yourselves, a lot of hard work but still fun. Why was it so much fun?
NATASHA CLOUD: I think Elena just talked about it. We’ve created this atmosphere here where we’re a family, where we enjoy coming in to work every single day, whether it’s practice or film work. We enjoy coming in because we’re around each other, and when you have that type of atmosphere, it makes this game fun. That professional level, it’s really hard to get that. I’ve seen that with being here for five years now. I’ve seen it in different teams, but the last two years I’ve thoroughly enjoyed just coming in and working and getting better every single day, and it’s mainly because of the people that we surround ourselves with.
ELENA DELLE DONNE: Yeah, I mean, no one on this team gives a crap about getting credit. Like the stat sheet, throw that thing away. Nobody cares. I know like teams will say that about themselves, but this is true here. Like as long as we get a W at the end of the day, that’s all that we’ve ever cared about, and that’s what makes basketball fun. That’s like when you were kids playing, why it was so fun, and that’s why this season has been so fun………
NATASHA CLOUD: And let me also add to that because I’m about to drop this bomb on y’all. Elena not only has one herniated disc, she has three.
ELENA DELLE DONNE: The medical staff is going to kill you.
NATASHA CLOUD: But it’s so important because when you’re talking about playing for the players to the left and to the right of you and being a leader on this team and being one of the captains and pushing through to win us a championship, that’s a huge testament to both her and Ariel [Atkins] in this last series. Again, thank you, Delle.
ELENA DELLE DONNE: Love you, Tash.
Q. Do you really have three herniated discs?
ELENA DELLE DONNE: Yes.
NATASHA CLOUD: Three of them thangs. Three of them!
Q. This season you guys’ mantra was “Run it back.” Can you guys talk about how that propelled you guys to win this year’s championship.
KRISTI TOLIVER: I mean, you know, when you have an experience like last year and you get to the Finals and you don’t get what you want, you’re extremely motivated for the next year, and so as soon as the buzzer sounded, we were ready to rock and roll, and everybody did their part, whether they were here in America or they were playing overseas. Everybody knew the goal and the purpose, and everyone trained that way. And so for us as we started the season, “Run it back” was — I mean, it’s old school. You’re playing on the street and you’re the next ones up. It’s like you lose, run that… back. I’m very proud of myself for not cursing right there. So we just embraced that. We embrace just the — there’s two ways you can go. You can feel sorry for yourself, feel like, man, why me? How come it didn’t go our way? And you can regroup and you can really be determined for greatness, and this team was determined for greatness. It took five games, took four in the semis, it took battling injuries, it took a lot of resilience, fight, heart. We had the biggest heart all year, and we were the most focused and determined team all year, and we’re just really proud of what we’ve done. But last year obviously certainly motivated us to be really, really focused for the season.
Q. Oftentimes when a team wins a championship, in reflection they say it wasn’t so much that they wanted to win, it’s just that they didn’t want to lose, they hated the idea of losing so much. I wonder in those last eight to ten minutes where you guys went mentally to get those stops and to, as was said, go inside to win as opposed to shooting threes.
KRISTI TOLIVER: All I said before the game to the team was regret nothing. And you guys take it from there.
ELENA DELLE DONNE: And we didn’t regret anything.
NATASHA CLOUD: I don’t think in our minds during the duration of the game that it came up, we don’t want to lose. Like Kristi said, this team wanted greatness, and greatness comes with that will to win and that will to push through and get stops and do all the little things that are necessary, and we did that on the defensive end. For us the last couple of huddles those last eight minutes it was all about defense and rebounding, and the team that could do that the best was the team that was going to win.
Q. Kristi, you were the only one on this team to win a championship, and now you have another one. But what makes this championship feel different than the previous one?
KRISTI TOLIVER: What was different? The people are different, obviously, and I love these people. I mean, I love the other people, too. I think it’s special when you are able to make history, and we made history tonight, and that just takes it to a whole different level. You know, everybody says you’ll never forget your first. I’ll never forget my first, but this one with these guys and the relationships that I have with them, I love them. These guys are my family. I would do anything for them. So for me, just coming out tonight, I didn’t play great. Like I mean, I made some free throws at the end of the game —
ELENA DELLE DONNE: Huge.
NATASHA CLOUD: Clutch.
KRISTI TOLIVER: That’s why I love them. They build me up. But it was the bomb.
Q. When you guys were down, what was being said in the huddle in the time-outs to keep you guys focused?
KRISTI TOLIVER: Hey, this mofo right here, she stepped up. We know she’s from Philly, so she talks a lot. So it was like — but that’s what makes us, too. Everybody has her thing. She (Natasha) talks a lot. She (Elena) obviously does what she does. I mean, I’m like — they’re calling me now the OG or the Triple OG. I’m just an old head, so my role is kind of like whatever. Tash stepped up huge tonight.
ELENA DELLE DONNE: She did.
KRISTI TOLIVER: Just communicating, communicating, communicating, just saying everything that everybody was already thinking. And her growth this year has been to a whole ‘nother level. Y’all are wrong for not making her Defensive Player of the Year. Y’all are all wrong for that. But she used that as motivation. And whatever. Tasha is the s—.
NATASHA CLOUD: Thanks, y’all.
CURT MILLER: It stings right now. Proud of that locker room. You sit in that locker room when the team had started out with a mission and a bold tagline front office campaign that we were going to burn it down and take the next step as an organization and as a team. From the moment training camp started we never shied from that and handled the pressure, and for a coach like myself that’s always prided the teams that I’ve always coached on never too high and never too low, man, sitting in this hotel room here in Washington and looking at that Ferris wheel outside of our hotel windows and knowing that this season included some highs, and looking at that Ferris wheel and knowing there’s times when you’re low. They fought through those moments the entire season and put themselves in an unbelievable position to win their first championship. I think when the sting goes away, if we would tell them that we’d get to check it up with 10 minutes to go with a two-point lead in Game 5, a winner-take-all game, I think we would play that 10 minutes over and over and over again. In the game, we’re up 70-67 I’m guessing. You guys can fact-check me. But my mind tells me that they have done an unbelievable job one-on-one in the post all game. We’ve defended the arc really well. But they’re pulling at you because they’ve been so successful with points in the paint and they’ve been successful playing one-on-one in the low post that we get caught on a little bit of an in-between dig and they kick it out and [Natasha] Cloud makes a three, and all of a sudden it’s 70-70. I think at that stretch they go on a 13-2 run. I stopped counting after that, but that 13-2 run when we had a three-point lead was the deciding run in the game. We only made five field goals in the fourth quarter. I thought they got really physical with us. I thought our spacing shrunk with some of the physicality and we didn’t execute, and when it was all said and done, they played a better 10 minutes in that fourth quarter and deserved the championship.
Q. I was hoping you would just speak to the legacy you think this team will leave. I know obviously the front office campaign and your players felt that you were disrespected all season long. You were able to play really — bring it to the last 10 minutes of the season to fight for a championship. What do you think this group has meant for the franchise and for the WNBA as a whole?
CURT MILLER: Yeah, you know, we told them in the locker room after the game, and I used this, we have an introductory song with your introductory highlight video, as you play right before you announce the starting lineups, and in that, it talks about being legendary, and I told them that they became household names in this series. Everyone is going to know their name now. And where we were considered a team without a mega-superstar, we were forced to trade a No. 1 overall draft pick weeks before the start of the season, and that locker room bonded together and said, nothing can derail us. So, they became legendary. They became household names. They were not considered megastars. Well, that locker room is filled with a bunch of megastars, and they proved that and everyone is going to know who they are for the rest of their careers. So I’m really excited. I think the energy — the fan base is reenergized. We took the next step after a couple disappointing playoffs, and we all know it’s not an easy market always. We’re trying to fight for the small market franchise in pro sports, and so proud of our fan base and so proud of where the organization and franchise is again.
Q. That fourth quarter was so reminiscent of the other night – tight game, came down to the last couple minutes, plays made. It seemed that tonight their defense stepped up when it needed to win the game. Is that kind of how you see it?
CURT MILLER: Yeah, I thought their physicality defensively made better plays in the fourth quarter. It’s funny, if you would have told me that, Crystal Ball Curt, what do you think Washington makes four threes tonight, how do you think the outcome is going to be? And I would have told you, wow, we’re in good shape. All series long we won the points-in-the-paint battle,and tonight they won clearly the points in the paint, and they just played very, very good one-on-one basketball. And they put you in dilemma; do you double down and give up open threes, or do you play and challenge us to get stops one-on-one? And they were good in the low post, and just when you may try to counter and look at some doubles, then they hit a big three to start their run. They were just better down the stretch, and defensively it wasn’t anything more than they were really physical, and I thought that they were the physical team when they needed it most down the stretch in a close game.
Q. With Jonquel Jones specifically and the fact that she was so aggressive, so present early on, I’m hoping you’ll take me through both your decision making to have her play through two and then three fouls late in that first half, and generally what you think we’ve learned about Jonquel Jones in this series as a whole.
CURT MILLER: Well, first off, we all know she’s a superstar. She’s one of the premier rebounding players in the world. The versatility is only going to continue to get better. She can score the ball in the outside. She can score with her back to the basket, and is only getting better and better that way. She’s an unselfish, quiet superstar that just has a huge game. In terms of tonight, you know, we rolled the dice a little bit playing her and extending her after her third foul, and then got nervous that they could isolate her and maybe pick up that fourth, so we had to sit her down. But it’s a winner-take-all game. You’ve got to let these guys play through some of their fouls. But with the dedication on their part schematically to throw the ball inside, you know, it’s hard. They have counters. They’re good one-on-one players and they can put you in foul trouble. So we had to pick our places. I didn’t want to take AT [Alyssa Thomas] out but needed just to have her take a seat and take a deep breath with those two fouls in the first quarter. So with all that said, with all the foul trouble, we weathered it and just — we got outplayed in the fourth quarter, and that’s a credit to Washington.
Q. I was here last year when Washington lost, and they seemed to seethe on that for a long time. Is this something that you seethe on? Are you already thinking ahead? What is that like?
CURT MILLER: Yeah, you know, I think you see they were motivated. They talked about “running it back,” right, was their campaign, and disappointed that they got swept last year. This is going to sting for a long time for our players, but it will also motivate that core group that’s back, that they know they can play championship-level basketball. Again, I’m so proud that they have made themselves household names around the country, and everybody knows who they are now, and they know what they’re about. I’ll go to war with that core group, with that team any day because I know they lay it on the line and they love each other, they care for each other. They want it for each other. There’s a bond in that locker room that is pretty special, and I think you need that in team sports in order to win.
Q. Jasmine [Thomas], could you speak to what you think the legacy of this particular team is being able to come within 10 minutes of a final, and obviously your franchise’s motto this whole season was “Burn it down” and then later being disrespected, what do you think this group was able to bring to the league and to basketball overall?
JASMINE THOMAS: I mean, I’m proud of us. I think we asserted ourselves and wanted to make ourselves known in this league, not just as individuals but as a team. You know, we have taken pride in team basketball all season. We’re a close group. We really care about each other, and sitting next to these two women up here, with how hard they work and how special they are, they’re two of the most talented people I’ve ever played with. So it hurts that we couldn’t win this championship for them, but I think we’ll always remember this team. I think going forward, we know what we’re capable of. We know we can be back here, and we’re just — it hurts right now, but I think we’ve done — we have a lot to be proud of.
Q. Jazz, if you look back at — I think it’s the last four champions were the runners-up the year before. Curt [Miller] obviously made a great deal of the fact that there was no one who was 30 on this team until you at the very end, but obviously even so, there’s a tremendous amount of youth up and down this roster. I wonder whether you view it as the beginning of something when you think about the arc of where this team is and where it’s going.
JASMINE THOMAS: For sure. I feel like every season we have accomplished more. With those two early exits in the single elimination, I feel like we’ve grown and we’ve matured as a team where we’re completely different now. We know how to win. I think from the beginning of next season, we’ll be determined to get right back here.