The Atlanta Dream found the defensive and offensive spark they needed in Alex Bentley, who scored 22 points off the bench and made a key defensive stop to even up their playoff series with the Mystics at one game apiece.
The teams were once again locked in a bruising battle marked by tough interior defense and the unstoppable play of Elene Delle Donne (27 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists). The All-Star forward hit three 3s in the third and lead the Mystics to a brief 10-point lead. Her dominance was continuing in the fourth until she hyperextended her left knee with three minutes remaining and the Mystics clinging to a 70-68 lead. She was unable to put any weight on the leg and had to be helped to the locker room.
Without their closer, the Mystics struggled on both ends as Tiffany Hayes (17 points) and Bentley attacked the paint. The game came down to the final minute and each team missed key free throws that could have tied or iced the game. Kristi Toliver split a pair and Washington trailed 75-76 with 23 seconds left. Hayes would split her free throws two seconds later to push the Atlanta lead to 77-75.
The Mystics made a costly turnover on their next possession as Bentley intercepted a bad pass from Ariel Atkins with 14.9 left.
“Game plan going in tonight was to be aggressively defensively,” said Bentley. “Not only that possession – I try to make it as difficult for Kristi Toliver as I can. She’s a great scorer and shooter. We really needed that play.”
Bentley split her free throws which gave the Mystics one last shot to send the game into overtime down 75-78. Toliver’s got off a contested 23-foot three-pointer that bounced off the rim. In the post-game press conference, a visibly emotional Toliver had to be consoled by Natasha Cloud.
“The free throw [miss], it sucks,” said Toliver. “You always want to be there for you team. [My emotions] have nothing to do with that, so I’ll just leave it at that.”
While the Dream’s three-point shooting improved (40%), most of their damage was done in the paint (40 points). Despite a tepid performance from the free throw line (69%) and 16 turnovers, Coach Nicki Collen lauded her team’s effort.
“I’m really proud of our toughness,” she praised. “Our battle was incredible – we played hard on the boards. We turned the ball over too much, but to get stops when we needed them says a lot about our team. That [defensive] play by AB at the end was telling. That’s how we won games this season – grind it out. This team knows how to close out games.”
A huge part of that defensive toughness was Jessica Breland, who set a franchise record with 7 blocks to go along with 10 points and 10 rebounds. The most pronounced block was in the third against Atkins, where Breland literally snatched the jumper attempt out the air in one fluid motion. The Dream were down five at that point and the play ignited an 11-4 run.
“My teammates react a lot to me blocking shots and my defense,” Breland explained. “Everybody on the was really hype about that play. I just knew she wasn’t going to score on me.”
Delle Donne’s knee and injury status is expected to be evaluated on Wednesday. Game 3 of the series head to Washington D.C. on Friday.
Ismael AbduSalaam is an Atlanta-based writer specializing in music, sports and film journalism. He is the creator of the sports and entertainment site BeatsBoxingMayhem.com. He can be reached at @Ismael_BBM_NYK.