Elena Delle Donne, her arms wrapped tightly around teammate Natasha Cloud, was sobbing with joy well before the final horn sounded, the kind of release that comes with a goal accomplished that was both long and hard.
Mike Thibault kept exhaling as he hugged his players, who were unabashed about the fact that they wanted this title as much, if not more, for their legendary head coach than they did for themselves.
Emma Meesseman, who earned the nickname “Playoff Emma” during this remarkable postseason run that ended with her holding the MVP award, said her motivation was utterly simple, “That trophy.”
The Washington Mystics are WNBA Champions for the first time in franchise history with a 89-78 Game 5 win over the stellar Connecticut Sun and it’s hard to imagine a more feel-good ending to a WNBA season since perhaps when Tamika Catchings won her only WNBA title with Indiana in 2012.
"THE. WAIT. IS. OVER!"
— WNBA (@WNBA) October 11, 2019
Delle Donne has been swept out of WNBA Finals twice before in her career, once in 2014 when she in Chicago and again last season as she battled through a knee injury against the Seattle Storm.
The 2019 MVP would not be swept again. Not when she herniated three discs in her back in Game 2. Not when she returned in Game 3 with a facemask, a back brace and a knee brace. Not when Connecticut took a nine-point lead with 6:39 to go in the third quarter of the winner-take-all finale. Not when the lead changed hands nine times. She finished her title-winning effort with 21 points and nine rebounds. And a championship.
“I’m just so proud of this team,” Delle Donne said. “This feels so good. It’s hard to even put it to words, but to win this and win 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.”
Delle Donne, the fourth consecutive league MVP to win a title in the same season, joined the Mystics three years ago when Thibault’s plan for this team was still a vision, not a reality. People questioned why she would land in Washington, which hadn’t been a factor in the WNBA in years.
“I saw it in coach,” Delle Donne said. “I knew he was building something special.”
To call Thibault, the 13th head coach in the 21-year history of the Mystics franchise, a WNBA Champion feels long overdue for the man who has won more WNBA games as a head coach than anyone in league history.
In the moments after the game, ESPN’s Holly Rowe said that Thibault has always said a title wouldn’t validate his career.
“It sure feels good though,” Thibault said with a laugh.
Thibault said the Mystics drive to win this title started immediately after losing one last year to Seattle. When the season began, he showed the last few minutes of the last game they lost in that Finals series.
“It started a year ago, when we weren’t quite good enough at the end,” Thibault said. “You don’t do this by looking four months ahead, you do it one game at a time.”
The Mystics took last year’s disappointment not only to heart, but to their minds and their souls. In winning this championship, they complete one of the best seasons by a team in league history, a season-long clinic in both offensive efficiency and team chemistry.
Thibault has built this team as a seamless unit, with depth and versatility, from the addition of a veteran like Kristi Toliver, the Virginia native who won the second title of her career, to players like Aerial Powers, Ariel Atkins and Natasha Cloud, who were not necessarily marquee names coming out of college, but have blossomed in their pro careers under his tutelage.
“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,” Thibault said. “And if people would buy in, the path would get accelerated.”
Thibault has created a perfect atmosphere in which Emma Meesseman, initially drafted by the Mystics back in 2013, could come in partway through the season and flourish.
Meesseman missed 11 games in June and early July and started just six games this season. She becomes the first reserve player to win a Finals MVP Award in league history.
She said that when she returned from the Belgian National Team’s run in the EuroCup Tournament to D.C. she felt no pressure to fit in with this team.
“I wasn’t thinking I was the missing piece,” Meesseman said in the moments after the game. “I am just a teammate and I wanted to do whatever I could to help my team win a championship. This is my family right now.”
Meesseman’s dominant postseason effort will be long-remembered. She scored 20 points or more in six of the Mystics’ nine playoff games, averaging 19.3 points a game in the playoffs. Coming off a Game 4 in which she struggled with 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting, she responded in Game 5 with 22 points with three rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks in 27 minutes on the floor.
Delle Donne called her “a monster.”
Meesseman, who missed the 2018 season in Washington to play for Belgium in the FIBA World Cup, said she felt a responsibility to give her team a boost off the bench on Thursday night.
“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,” Meesseman said. “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.”
Thibault preached to his team all season to “be who you are.”
“And they were,” Thibault said. “They stayed true to character down the stretch. And I’m just so proud.”