The Washington Mystics committed an uncharacteristic 14 turnovers, but still shot 54 percent to take Game 1 of the WNBA Finals over the Connecticut Sun, 95-86, in D.C. on Sunday.
The Mystics, back in the finals after being swept in their first appearance last year, lead the best-of-five series 1-0.
Mystics forward and league MVP Elena Delle Donne led the team with 22 points and pulled down 10 rebounds, while All-Star point guard Kristi Toliver added 18 points and seven assists.
But both players and head coach Mike Thibault credited second-year guard Ariel Atkins as the key to the win. Atkins, who scored 21 points, helped fuel a 9-0 run late in the fourth with a 3-pointer and two crucial rebounds that put the Mystics up 89-76 with three minutes remaining.
“She plays hard all the time and she gives everything all the time,” Toliver said of Atkins, who the team affectionally calls “Little A” because another teammate, Aerial Powers, has the same first name. “She is the best second-year player I’ve ever been around as far as her maturity level, her work ethic [and] wanting to do the right thing for this team. This year, she’s just showing that sophomore slumps are BS.”
Delle Donne also praised her teammate’s maturity, relaying a humorous story of when the team received massages last year at their rookies’ houses, including Atkins’.
“When I walked in to Little A’s house, she had a crockpot cooking some meal,” Delle Donne said. “Then she had plants. This is the oldest soul I’ve ever seen. I’ve been in love with her ever since.”
The straightforward Atkins acknowledged her shooting slump in the semifinals series against Las Vegas, but said she managed to stay focused and help her team.
“I did struggle throughout the series, but the main point of all this is to win,” she said. “I [couldn’t] care less if I score 50 or zero. I’m trying to win a championship.”
Connecticut head coach Curt Miller said his team had to play catch-up after surrendering 30 points in the first quarter. The Sun’s defense tightened over the next three quarters, allowing 25 in the second, 21 in the third and 19 in the fourth.
“Over the last three quarters we outplayed them and outscored them, but we dug ourselves in a hole and we were always trying to climb out of it,” he said. “Ultimately, we have to credit their offensive execution. We left some points on the board, missing some shots. We got a little bit tired in trying to stretch our bench a little bit more.”
Sun guard Courtney Williams scored a game-high 26 points along with five rebounds and five assists in slightly more than 38 minutes, while teammate Alyssa Thomas played all 40 minutes and recorded 20 points, six rebounds and six assists.
“To be honest, I felt I could do what I wanted to do,” said Williams, who shot 6-for-9 from beyond the arc. “I felt pretty comfortable.”
Game 2 is Tuesday 8 p.m. in D.C. and will air on ESPN. Both teams are in pursuit of their respective franchise’s first championship.