Elena Delle Donne
Elena Delle Donne Credit: LORIE SHAULL/FLICKR

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Not many predicted the Washington Mystics would be true championship contenders, even with 2015 MVP Elena Delle Donne on their roster.In the preseason WNBA.com power rankings, they were listed eighth.

Now, the Mystics are three wins away from their first WNBA title, and bringing Washington, D.C. its second major championship of the year.It would be the first championship title for head coach Mike Thibault, the winningest coach in WNBA history. Game 1 against the Seattle Storm is on Friday night in the best-of-five series.

On Tuesday night, the Mystics won a thrilling Game 5 on the road in Atlanta to advance to the 21-year-old franchise’s first ever WNBA Finals. This run has surprised many, especially after the Mystics’ second-leading scorer, Emma Meesseman, decided to stay in Belgium this WNBA season due to national team commitments.

But none of this has surprised the team. The Mystics have been confident since training camp. Thibault also brought in All-Star Kristi Toliver last season when the team reached the semifinals before falling to the eventual champion Minnesota Lynx in a sweep. A lot of that confidence was fueled by work during the offseasonparticularly the camaraderie and chemistry fused when three key members of this finals team, Delle Donne, Tianna Hawkins, and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt spent most of their fall and winter in the D.C. area, working out with the Mystics trainers and practicing with some members of the coaching staff.

This is rare for WNBA players. Most go overseas during the fall and winter, where they can play for teams in Europe or Asia and earn significantly more money than they can in the United States. Often, players only get training camp to try to gel, which can be frustrating since a lot of players arrive late due to overseas commitments.

“It was different, just being in that atmosphere during the offseason. It was competitive,” Ruffin-Pratt tells City Paper. “Then when we were back with the group, back with the team, we had already built some chemistry, we knew the system, and we were able to help others who weren’t there. It helped us be more leaders, because we knew what coach wanted.”

Ruffin-Pratt, who went undrafted out of the University of North Carolina and has been with the Mystics since getting an invitation to their training camp in 2013, did spend one month playing in Israel, but the rest of the offseason, she was at Capital One with Delle Donne, Hawkins, and a rotating cast of other teammates, working on adding the three-point shot back into her game.

The work has paid off for Ruffin-Pratt. In 2017, she was 0-for-4 from the three-point line, despite being a full-time starter. This year, coming off the bench for most of the year, she’s gone 16-for-41. While her percentage is not as high as she would like, the fact that she’s being aggressive and taking the open shots when defenses give them to her has been a crucial component for a team that wants to stretch the floor.

“I remember every single day coming in with Elena and Tierra and just shooting NBA threes,” Hawkins says. “It was always NBA threes, not even WNBA threes.”

Hawkins made the most offseason changes. Facing free agency, she decided to get healthy, and committed to remaking her body after giving birth in 2015. She lost 20 pounds, worked extensively on her ball handling and three-point game, and was rewarded with a two-year contract with the Mystics in February.

“I decided just to stay here and work on myself,” Hawkins says. “In my exit interview, the coaches sat me down and said, ‘If you get in the best shape, we expect you to do great things.’ It was a challenge for myself. That was my main goal.”

Hawkins is now having one of the best seasons of her career. She’s shooting 35.7 percent from three-point range, compared to 26.1 percent last year, and she’s shooting from outside more often, too. Last season, she attempted 46 three pointers; during the 2018 regular season, she’s attempted 70. In the postseason, she’s improved that percentage to 43.6 percent. And in Game 5 against the Dream, she came off of the bench and scored a career-high tying 17 points in just 10 minutes.

“She put in a lot of work, just being able to transform herself, in the weight room and gym,” Ruffin-Pratt says. “We had to force her to take a day off. We saw it every single day, she was always there and pushing through, no matter if it was a bad day or a good day, no matter, she was there putting in the work.”

Both Ruffin-Pratt and Hawkins say they benefited from working so closely with one of the best players in the league, Delle Donne, who typically doesn’t go overseas.

“It’s inspiring just seeing how hard she works, day in and day out,” says Ruffin-Pratt.

The result of this hard work? Well, history. And now, possibly, a championship. Not bad for a team that went through a major roster overhaul just 18 months ago.

“Last year, it was like we were on our first date,” Delle Donne said at training camp. “And then this year it’s like family getting back together.”

Photo by Lorie Shaull on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.