Photo Credits: Josh Sowemimo
In another battle of attrition that’s defined their entire playoff series, the Atlanta Dream and Washington Mystics played down to the wire in last night’s deciding Game 5. This time the Mystics were a little better, receiving key contributions from Tianna Hawkins (17 points), Kristi Toliver (19 points) and Ariel Atkins (20 points) to secure their second road win of the series 86-81 and book their first WNBA Finals appearance.
The first half was tightly contested with neither team receiving much breathing room. Both squads shot over 50% with Atlanta’s offense doing more damage in the paint and Washington relying on their three-point sharp-shooting (6/10).
The increased defensive intensity in the second half made for a slower-paced, half court battle which favored the Mystics’ towering frontcourt of LaToya Sanders (3 blocks, 2 steals) and Elena Delle Donne (14 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks). The Mystics put together an 8-0 run to take the lead 59-57 midway through the third and settled on a 67-64 lead headed into the decisive fourth quarter.
Although the scoring was nearly dead even in the fourth, all the momentum plays and calls went in the Mystics’ favor. They scrambled more on lose balls, reflected in 17 total offensive rebounds for the game. After the Dream went up 71-69 with 5:52 left, their offense completely stalled. Several 50/50 foul calls went the Mystics way, allowing for quick points at the charity stripe. The most damaging for the Dream occurred with Elizabeth Williams was hit with an offensive flagrant foul, resulting in the Mystics taking a 77-71 lead in the final three minutes.
The overall officiating drew the ire of the Dream players and fans, who for the first time this season showered the officials with several “These refs suck!” chants. Overall, the Mystics would get 19 free throw attempts compared to 9 for the Dream. An emotional Alex Bentley, who got the Dream off to a fast start with 9 first quarter points and finished with 16 off the bench, did not hold back in her criticism of the officials.
Dream head coach Nicki Collen, who also won Coach of the Year this season, freely admitted to crying heavily in the locker room. She was more subdued in her assessment of the disproportionate foul calls and focused on lauding her team’s effort.
“I’m incredibly proud of this team,” Collen said. “We’re further ahead than I thought we’d be when I took this job. It was one hell of a year… These guys have become family to me.”
The Dream sorely missed their All-Star Angel McCoughtry, who went down with a season-ending knee injury a week before the playoffs started. Missing their go-to scorer, the Dream struggled through offensive droughts this series. However, Collen praised the emergence of All-Star Tiffany Hayes (13 points), who she believes will improve tremendously from this experience.
“This was a tough series for her, Collen reflected. “They would meet her at the rim and with their length she was forced into a lot of floaters and mid-range jumpers. Once those shots develop she’ll become unguardable in this league.”
As the Dream walked off the court to conclude their season, McCoughtry took the mic to leave their fans with a promise.
“We’ve got a great team and we’ll only get better. We will be back.”
Photos | Josh Sowemimo
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.