Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Natasha Cloud is sitting in front of her temporary locker on a fold out chair as reporters file in and out of the locker room. She still has her game uniform on as she leans forward to eat her post-game meal of rice, barbecue chicken, and corn on the cob. Her Mystics teammates are quietly chatting nearby. Ariel Atkins is next to her, scrolling through her phone. The mood is hardly somber—a few players are laughing and cracking jokes—but it’s nothing like the celebratory, champagne-soaked party just down the hall inside George Mason University’s EagleBank Arena in Fairfax.

About half an hour ago, Cloud was on the court during Game 3 of the WNBA Finals against the Seattle Storm. When she hit the final shot of the game, a three-pointer at the top of the key, she glanced up at the clock, turned around and quietly walked toward the locker room as the Storm players rushed onto the court to celebrate their 98-82 championship-clinching victory to end the Mystics’ historic season in a three games to none sweep.

The Mystics, picked to finish eighth in a preseason prediction on WNBA.com, had exceeded most expectations, making their first WNBA Finals in franchise history. But those inside the organization aren’t yet satisfied and believe the best is still to come.

“I think it’s important to realize that we just rebuilt this team last year with bringing in Elena [Delle Donne] and Kristi [Toliver] and some other pieces,” Cloud says. “In our second year we’re a championship-caliber team. We’ve continuously progressed from semifinals to the finals. There is another level to this team, so we have a lot to be proud of. Seattle was just the better team this series. I don’t think we played our best basketball, but there’s a lot that we can build from. We have a solid group here, so it’s only up from here.”

The Mystics scored the first four points, but the Storm, led by Breanna Stewart, the league’s Most Valuable Player, shot efficiently from the field and attacked the boards to build a double-digit lead. Stewart finished with 30 points, while center Natasha Howard scored 29. The Storm out-rebounded Washington, 39-28.

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But the home fans kept cheering, even when the game felt out of reach. At times, like when the Mystics went on a run to cut the lead to five points in the third quarter, the volume was deafening.

Fans drove through the D.C. rush-hour traffic to pack the arena. Others took off from work early. Maryland women’s basketball coach Brenda Frese says she left College Park around 4:15 in the afternoon and arrived at the arena at 6 p.m. with her assistant coaches and most of the players on her team. Jacqueline Smothers, a 55-year-old Upper Marlboro resident and Mystics season ticket holder, got to the arena at 5 p.m. She says she tried to get another ticket but the game was sold out.

The official attendance for the game was 9,164 and included Wizards star John Wall, rookie NFL running back Derrius Guice, and legendary Connecticut women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma.

It was a stark contrast to the games earlier this season.

“We’ve seen such a growth in our fan base these past two years,” Delle Donne said at her post-game press conference. “Not going to lie, it was a little quiet when we first came out for our first game, and now look at it. Which obviously winning helps, but we can really create something here, and I think we’ve really grown this fan base, and they’re behind us.

“They’re proud of us, and they know we’re not satisfied,” she continued, “and we want to do more.”

The team played at three different arenas in the past few months from Capital One Arena in downtown D.C., to George Washington University’s Smith Center, to EagleBank Arena, which is 20 miles outside the city.

Starting next season the team will play all of their home games at the soon-to-be-opened Entertainment and Sports Arena located in Ward 8 at the St. Elizabeths East Campus. The 4,200-seat arena will also be host Wizards practices and the Wizards G-League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go.

“I’m super excited about that,” says Atkins, who was named to the All-WNBA rookie team. “I actually saw a picture and our names were in the carpet, and I thought that was really dope. It’s just a small thing that I thought was really dope. We have a home. And we have some place that is home. There is no trying to find a place to play. We now have a stable home, so that’s exciting to know for the fans and for us.”

As Cloud attempts to finish her meal, she is interrupted by another interview request. More than 40 minutes have passed since the end of the game, and still reporters are interested in what the outspoken guard has to say about the season that just ended. Cloud doesn’t mind. She puts her plate down, nearly spilling her food, and heads toward the hallway with a smile on her face for another chance to talk about the team, her teammates, their supportive fans, and the exciting future ahead.