UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- With 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter of Tuesday's Game 4, Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas pulled down a defensive rebound and was immediately fouled. With her team already holding a three-point lead over the Washington Mystics, it was suddenly clear to everyone in the near-capacity arena:
The WNBA Finals were going to a Game 5.
Nearly all those in attendance jumped from their seats in excitement and banged their inflatable thundersticks until the sound was almost deafening. Sun guard Courtney Williams raised her hands triumphantly in the air. Forward Jonquel Jones clenched her fists in victory as she ran back to the other end of the floor. There were still two foul shots to be taken, and several seconds to play after that, but a fiercely contested second half was effectively over. The Mystics had erased a 16-point halftime deficit, but the Sun held on to win 90-86 and force a winner-takes-all showdown in Washington on Thursday night (ESPN2, ESPN App, 8 p.m. ET).
"We're having the time of our life right now," Sun coach Curt Miller said after the game. "Nothing better. You dream as a little kid being in a deciding final game, a Game 7, a Game 5 of a series to win a world championship. If you grew up a basketball fan, these are the moments that you dreamed of."
This championship series going the distance feels like a perfect -- and fitting -- ending for what has been a breakthrough WNBA season. With milestone television ratings and having finally become a regular part of the national sports conversation, thanks in large part to the emergence of some of the league's best personalities, the WNBA seemingly has never been stronger. Just ask Washington Wizards star and Mystics superfan Bradley Beal.
Before the 2016 season, the WNBA changed its playoff format, and the innovative postseason structure -- single-elimination games for the first two rounds and an abandonment of the rigid conference seeding seen in the NBA -- has helped bring more than a fair share of dramatic moments to the 2019 playoffs. They might be no better exemplified than by Dearica Hamby's wild 38-footer to propel the Las Vegas Aces into the semifinals, but the Finals have had everything a fan could want in a championship series.
From the days-long "Will she play?" narrative surrounding Elena Delle Donne after she suffered a herniated disk in her back in Game 2, to Jones' 32-point, 18-rebound statement game, to the increasing mutual dislike and aggressiveness between the two squads, the WNBA Finals have been epic, and played in front of packed crowds in both Washington and Connecticut. The score was tied on four different occasions in the fourth quarter alone in Tuesday's clash, as the teams traded buckets, as well as the lead and momentum.
To end this series in anything less than five games would have been a disservice. It's the seventh time, and fourth in the past five years, the league has had a Game 5 in the Finals since adopting a best-of-five format in 2005. One would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn't think it was good for the league -- even if it is panic-inducing at times for those involved.
"You know, when you sit there with your coach's hat on, there's times where this series is maddening that you can't get stops," Miller said. "But from a fan perspective, from a league perspective, the amount of shots in pressure situations, with how hard everybody is playing, has got to be amazing TV, and good for our league.
"Both teams in the fourth quarter were making big shots. We would make a 3, they'd answer with a 3 ... It's really, really good basketball."
The Seattle Storm swept Washington in the 2018 WNBA Finals, but now the Mystics have a chance in front of their home crowd -- in their brand-new arena -- to win it all for the first time in franchise history. It would be a long time coming for Washington's Mike Thibault, the winningest coach in league history who has come so close to hoisting the trophy throughout his legendary career, and for Delle Donne, the two-time league MVP who has never managed to win the ultimate hardware.
As Beal wrote in The Players' Tribune: "We're going to battle until our opponents don't want to battle anymore. And that's these Mystics, man. That's this moment."
Of course, the Sun have never won the title either, and their young players are just as hungry to end the drought in Connecticut's first Finals appearance since 2005. The Sun have thrived on being doubted all season long, and they would love nothing more than to prove their haters wrong.
Neither team is lacking when it comes to motivation. That's the easy part. Now both teams will have to turn around and play some 350 miles away in less than 48 hours. Despite this lightning-fast turnaround, most players seem to recognize how incredible of an opportunity it is to play in -- and potentially win -- a Game 5.
"We were the kids in the driveway, like Coach was saying, shooting up shots and saying it's a game -- we were saying it was Game 7, in this case it's a Game 5," Jones said. "So it means a lot. We understand that we just have a lot of work to do, but at the end of the day, it's really good to just sit in the moment and realize where you are and then worry about that when the game day comes, as well. It's awesome."
Delle Donne also understands the significance of the game, even if she isn't thrilled with Game 4's outcome.
"I wanted to win it in four," she said with obvious disappointment in her voice. "That's hard to say. But I think it's great for the league. It's great for fans. It's great to get more people excited about our game. So for that, I'm grateful.
"I think this has been quite the series, and people better be tuning in because this is some great basketball and some really good teams. From that sense, it's great for this league."