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Two surges lift Washington past Connecticut in WNBA finals opener

Two runs were enough for the Washington Mystics to capture the first WNBA finals game in franchise history Sunday against the Connecticut Sun.

The Mystics outscored Connecticut 12-0 in the final 2:11 to build a 13-point lead and when the Sun cut it to four points late in the fourth quarter, Washington used a 9-0 surge to again re-establish command.

Washington’s Elena Delle Donne scored 22 points, Ariel Atkins had 21 points and Kristi Toliver chipped in with 18 to lead the Mystics to a 95-86 victory over the Connecticut Sun at the Entertainment and Sports game one of the WNBA finals and take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-5 series.

Connecticut’s Courtney Williams had 26 points and drained 6-of-9 shots from three-point range while Alyssa Thomas finished with 20 points. Game two is Tuesday night at 8 p.m. in Washington.

“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to Washington,” Sun coach Curt Miller said. “I thought they did a really nice job regardless of what defense (we played). I thought the first quarter killed us, obviously. Over the last three quarters, we outplayed them and outscored them, but we dug ourselves in a hole, and we were always trying to climb out of it.”

Washington led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter before the Sun began to chip away at the deficit. Connecticut cut the lead to four points, 80-76, with 5:56 remaining in the game only to see the Mystics pull away again.

Delle Donne, the league MVP, hit a jumper, Atkins drained a three-pointer from the corner and Toliver scored on a drive to the rim with an underhanded basket. Delle Donne closed out the surge with a basket on the baseline over Alyssa Thomas with 2:56 remaining to extend the lead to 13 points, 91-76.

“Ultimately you’ve got to credit their offensive execution,” Miller said. “It was just outstanding when they needed it. They stepped up and made big shots out of those plays.”

The first half was an abundance of offensive skill and execution. The Mystics hit 64 percent of their shots while the Sun sank 61 percent of their shots as Washington held a 55-46 lead at halftime.

“This is what the series is going to be all about. There was two really, really talented offensive teams playing tonight. And despite everything both teams were trying, it was a fun offensive game,” Miller said.

Not only did Delle Donne, the 6-foot-5 forward, lead her team in scoring (22 points) but she pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds and had five assists. Atkins had a playoff career-high 21 points by sinking 6-of-7 shots from the field, including three 3-points shots. She also had three steals.

“I thought obviously Elena did what she does,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said. “I mean, (22 points, 10 rebounds, five assists). But the Ariel Atkins contribution was huge today, from making her first three of the game to being aggressive. That looked like the Ariel from last year in the playoffs, and that offensive rebound she got late in the game was a huge saver for us. It gave us the last piece of momentum that we needed.”

Connecticut had cut the lead to four points for the second time in less than a minute before Delle Donne hit a jumper with 4:56 left to extend the lead to six, 82-76. Jonquel Jones missed a shot down low and the rebound was pulled down by Atkins, who started a fast break for the Mystics. The play ended when Atkins drained a three-point shot from the corner off an assist from Natasha Cloud.

After a Connecticut miss, Emma Meesseman missed inside but Atkins pulled down the rebound to keep the possession alive. Ten seconds later, Toliver scored on a driving, finger roll layup to push the lead back to 11.

Alyssa Thomas once again was the ironman for the Sun, playing all 40 minutes for the second time in the playoffs and the third time this year. She had 15 points in the first half and was 7-for-7 from the floor in the first half. She had a team-high six rebounds and a team-leading five steals.

“I was just being aggressive,” Thomas said. “You know, they kept switching (players on her defensively). I had mismatches on me, so we knew that’s how they were going to guard us. I just kept staying aggressive.”

Jones finished with 12 points and six rebounds while Shekinna Stricklen had 13 points. Guard Jasmine Thomas finished with seven points after a tough night shooting the ball, making just three of 14 shots from the floor. Jones was 5-of-8 from the floor.

“We absolutely will look at getting her more touches, especially down low,” Jasmine Thomas said. She said that when Jones is getting the ball down low, teams tend to pay more attention to the 6-foot-5 forward. “Then it’s able to open up the floor for the rest of us,” Jasmine Thomas said.

The Sun will have to avoid droughts like they had at the end of the first quarter. In the final 3:21 of the quarter, the Mystics outscored Connecticut, 12-0 to turn a one-point deficit into a 13-point deficit. In that span, the Sun went 0-for-3 from the floor with no rebounds and four turnovers.

Washington was able to take advantage with four different players scoring capped off by Toliver driving to the basket with 1.4 seconds left in the half for a 30-17 halftime lead.

NOTES: Williams is confident after her 26-point performance in her WNBA finals debut. One reporter asked her about Ariel Atkins defense on her. “To be honest, I felt like I could do it whatever I wanted to do,” Williams said. “I mean, no shame to (Atkins), she’s a great defender, but I felt like I was getting to all my spots that I wanted to get to.

“I felt pretty comfortable. I think I shot the best I ever shot from the three. But we’ve just got to get the next game.” Williams made six of nine shots from three-point range – her best performance of the season from long distance.

Connecticut’s Morgan Tuck is the only former UConn player participating in this year’s finals. She scored four points in a little over nine minutes of action off the bench. “Morgan is a great mover, and I thought she just allowed us to slip things, move things,” Miller said and the offense was a bit crisper and cleaner. “She’s such a smart player. She’s not afraid of this moment with four national championships in college.”

The Mystics’ 55 points set a postseason franchise record for points scored in the first half. … The two teams hit a combined 62 percent from the floor in the first half – a new WNBA playoff record. … Washington finished the game shooting 54 percent from the floor while the Sun shot 48.4 percent – their best effort of this year’s playoffs.

The University of Maryland has five former players in this series led by Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas (Class of 2014) and Brionna Jones (2017). The Mystics have former Terrapins Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (2017), Tianna Hawkins (2013) and Toliver (2009) on the floor. Toliver won a NCAA title with the Terps in college and a WNBA title with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016.

2019 WNBA championship
Best of 5
Sunday, September 29
Game 1: Washington 95, Connecticut 86, Washington leads series, 1-0
Tuesday, October 1
Game 2: Connecticut at Washington, 8 p.m., ESPN
Sunday, October 6
Game 3: Washington at Connecticut, 3:30 p.m., ABC
Tuesday, October 8
Game 4: Washington at Connecticut, 8 p.m., if necessary, ESPN2
Thursday, October 10
Game 5: Connecticut at Washington, 8 p.m., if necessary, ESPN2

Gerry deSimas, Jr., is the editor and founder of The Collinsville Press. He is an award-winning writer and has been covering sports in Connecticut and New England for more than 40 years. He was inducted into the New England High School Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2018.

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