Elena Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver, and Natasha Cloud speak to the media after Game 5 of the WNBA Finals
Elena Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver, and Natasha Cloud speak to the media after Game 5 of the WNBA Finals Credit: Elizabeth Tuten

The Mystics never shied away from their ultimate goal. Even before the season began, players talked about reaching the WNBA Finals and winning the franchise’s first championship title. They repeated the motto, “run it back,” starting in training camp, still stung from the feeling of being swept by the Seattle Storm in last year’s finals.

Led by Elena Delle Donne, this year’s league MVP,and Mike Thibault, the winningest coach in WNBA history, the Mystics did not lack confidence. They embraced the pressure.

Earlier this week in a TV interview, guard Natasha Cloud guaranteed the Mystics would win Game 5 of the WNBA Finals. “Facts. Period,” she said.

And on Thursday night, the Mystics backed up their bravado, beating the Connecticut Sun in the decisive fifth game of the WNBA Finals, 89-78, in front of a sold-out crowd at the Entertainment and Sports Arena.

“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,” said Kristi Toliver, the only player on the team who had won a previous WNBA title. “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.”

For the first two and a half quarters against the Sun, it looked like the Mystics had gotten ahead of themselves. Down 43-42 going into the half, the players had trouble stopping the Sun’s offense and shot poorly from the three-point line, a typical strength for the Mystics.

The Sun built its lead early in the third quarter, forcing Thibault to call a timeout down, 51-44.

But a few plays later, Delle Donne scored on an and-one, followed shortly after by a nifty move by Emma Meesseman in the paint to cut the Sun’s lead to two. Meesseman skipped the 2018 WNBA season to play for the Belgium national team and her coach and teammates have called her the “missing piece” from last year’s squad.

Meesseman, a self-described introvert who prefers to deflect attention and praise, typically rolls her eyes at the comment, but the Belgian made arguably the biggest difference at the most important game in the franchise’s history.

After the game, when the confetti had fallen from the ceiling and the players had their turns with the WNBA championship trophy, a teary-eyed Meesseman received another honor: MVP of the WNBA Finals, the first bench player to win the award.

“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,” said Meesseman, who finished with 22 points. “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.”

The title also marks the first for Delle Donne and Thibault, both future Hall of Famers who can finally add “WNBA champions” next to their names.

Delle Donne left early in Game 2 of the finals and was later diagnosed with a herniated disc, but she returned for Game 3 and scored 13 points. She finished with 21 points on Thursday, and in the press conference afterward, Cloud told reporters that Delle Donne played with not one, but three herniated discs.

“The medical staff is going to kill you,” Delle Donne responded with a smile.

The exchange also illustrated what the players have been saying all season. This team cares for each other and has fun. The players can keep things loose but know when to be serious. In the end, that worked. The Mystics are the WNBA champions.

“To be on a team that could carry me when I wasn’t 100 percent really means a lot to just get over this hump and to be able to push through when not feeling great,” Delle Donne said. “And then coach and I, we’ve had this little thing through the playoffs where we go up to each other and say, ‘Have I told you lately that I love you,’ even in bad losses where we’re kind of angry at each other, we do that to keep ourselves going and to realize how much we do love each other, and how much I’ve trusted in him in coming to D.C. and believing in his dream, and him putting together this team that is just so great on the court and off the court. So I also said I was very happy that I am one of the players and this is the team that was able to bring him something he [hadn’t] done yet.”