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Throughout the regular season, the Mystics referenced last year’s WNBA Finals against the Seattle Storm as a source of motivation. Playing in their first championship series in 2018, the Mystics got swept in three games. It was a feeling they never wanted to experience again.
Players repeated the motto, “run it back,” with the intention of at least reaching the WNBA Finals again this season.
“That was what I was saying every single day this offseason when I was working out because I couldn’t let those three games go against Seattle,” Kristi Toliver said during the team’s media day in April. “I still haven’t. I won’t … We have unfinished business and we’re very, very motivated to get back to where we were last year.”
The top-seeded Mystics are now back on that stage after completing a historic regular season. They reached the WNBA Finals by beating the Las Vegas Aces (and their trash talking all-star center Liz Cambage) in four games in the semifinals, and on Sunday, the Mystics won Game 1 against No. 2 seed Connecticut Sun, 95-86, in the best-of-five series.
They no longer need their loss to Seattle as motivation.
“I think at this point, last year was last year,” Toliver told reporters after the game. “This is a whole new season. You know, we’re motivated to win now, and obviously we’re back to where we wanted to be from last season, but we’re just motivated for this year. I mean, obviously last year that gave us the experience, and I think it gave us the confidence that we have for this season because we were there last year and we know what it looks like, what it feels like, what it tastes like, but we’re just ready to win.”
The Sun entered the WNBA Finals with a 2-1 head-to-head record against the Mystics this season. But Sunday afternoon’s game was the first matchup that featured both league MVP Elena Delle Donne and Emma Meesseman for Washington.
Delle Donne sat out the first game in May with knee soreness and Meesseman missed the June contests due to Belgium national team duties. The Mystics lost the first two while routing the Sun, 102-59, on June 29.
On Sunday, the Mystics displayed all of its offensive arsenal that set several league records, including the most three-point field goals made per game (9.3) and the best free-throw percentage (87.5 percent).
“The biggest difference is that we have our whole team,” says center LaToya Sanders. “And also offensively we have grown since we’ve played them. I think we were done with them within the first month of the season. Our growth offensively has gotten better and like I said, the biggest factor is that everybody’s here.”
Emma Meesseman sat out last season to play for Belgium and Mystics coach Mike Thibault and her teammates have described her as the “missing piece” from a year ago. Against the Aces, Meesseman averaged 21.3 points in four games. She scored 11 points off the bench in Game 1 against Connecticut.
The introverted Meesseman has continually denied her team’s praise of her being the “missing piece.”
“That’s just Emma’s personality,” Sanders laughs. “She’s never going to admit it. But the other 11, we know.”
Both Sanders and guard Natasha Cloud say that the team doesn’t think much about last season’s WNBA Finals, but that the experience has better prepared them for this time around.
“Towards the end of the game, you can see [with] Connecticut, there was no communication, they were quiet, and we were that team last year,” says Sanders. “So I think it’s not necessarily motivation, but it’s a learning experience that we’re able to have over Connecticut this year.”
“We’ve been in this position before,” adds Cloud. “We understand now what it takes to win a championship. It takes all the little things, people willing to sacrifice their bodies, sacrifice themselves some nights to give the hot hand the ball. We’ve done that all season long, but other than that we don’t think about last season. We’re solely focused and prepared mentally on this series. We’re focused on running it back, the commitment that we made to each other this season, but other than that we don’t think about last year at all.”
But there’s at least one player in the locker room who says she does use last year as motivation: Ariel Atkins. The second-year player scored 21 points on Sunday and says she thinks back to the Seattle series to help her mentally.
“Because for me that was my first year and I learned a lot that year,” she says. “So for us to come out and have that under my belt I feel like it’s huge.”