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After the Mystics lost in the WNBA Finals last season, coach Mike Thibault spoke with forward Emma Meesseman, who had skipped the WNBA season to play for the Belgium national team. During the conversation, she told him the team didn’t need her after such a successful season.
“We didn’t win,” Thibault replied. “We need you. We need everybody.”
Thibault recounted the story on Tuesday night to explain Meesseman’s value after the forward finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds, playing a pivotal role in the Mystics’ 97-95 win over the Las Vegas Aces in Game 1 of their best-of-five semifinal series. On a night when the team’s defense had trouble stopping the Aces’ quick transition offense, the Mystics turned to Meesseman to knock down big shots.
Guard Kristi Toliver told City Paper that she was the “difference maker” of the game.
“It’s why Emma is who she is,” Thibault said. “She’s been preached at all year by her teammates and coaches that she’s the missing piece from a year go. Her aggressiveness, and her ability to shoot the ball, rebound the ball, was going to be difference for us … She’s just such a fundamentally sound player.”
With about three minutes remaining in third quarter and the Mystics trailing 70-68, Elena Delle Donne swung the ball to a wide open Meesseman on the left corner. She didn’t hesitate. Ever since drafting the Belgium native in 2013, Thibault and Mystics player have implored Meesseman to play more aggressively.
“I don’t know if two years ago she would’ve taken that shot,” Thibault said, “and that was a huge shot for us and that kinda broke the game open momentum wise.”
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The introverted Meesseman has always preferred getting her teammates invovled—almost to a fault. After a practice session last month, Thibault told a small group of reporters that he is still trying to get her to play more aggressively. “Most of the time with Emma, it’s how aggressive she wants to be,” Thibault said.
Meesseman has heard those comments repeatedly.
“I hate that he still has to say that,” she told reporters. “I think it’s just me. I like to pass.”
But the team often needs her to score. With the opposing defense closing in on Delle Donne, Meesseman can get open looks like she did against the Aces.
During the regular season, Meesseman averaged 13.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game. She also finished the regular season shooting 55.2 percent from the field, 42.2 percent from beyond the arc, and 90.5 percent from the free-throw line but did not finish with enough games to qualify for the 50-40-90 club. (Delle Donne became the first WNBA player to join that exclusive club this season.)
When told after the game that Thibault had once again called her the “missing piece” from last year, Meesseman did what she does best and deflected the praise in an amusing exchange while sitting next to Delle Donne.
Meesseman: “I’m not sure that I agree with that.”
Delle Donne: “Emma, stop it.”
Meesseman: “They did great last year.”
Delle Donne: “We didn’t win, Emma. We need you. I’ll take your 27 and 10 any night.”
“It’s good to have that confidence,” Meesseman responded. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, we were good last year so we don’t need you or something.’ I’m just happy that I’m a part of this team because this is my second home, pretty much.”