Sun's fast start, big finish force WNBA Finals to decisive Game 5

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Alyssa Thomas looked at her Connecticut teammates as they huddled around the bench at the end of the third quarter. What had just happened to the Sun? How did this Game 4 of the WNBA Finals go sideways? What had appeared to be a blowout victory was instead a barn burner, and the score was tied headed into the fourth quarter.

The Sun had led by as much as 18 points -- the Washington Mystics' largest deficit this season -- but then there was reason to panic. The Sun's backs were against the wall because the revitalized Mystics were 10 minutes from the champagne of their first WNBA championship.

What did the Sun have to say for themselves?

"We're not losing this," Thomas later recounted. "We put together such a great first half, we can't start folding now."

Connecticut survived 90-86 in the closest game of the series, which included a nerve-wracking, spell-binding fourth quarter and sent the Finals to a decisive fifth game for the seventh time (and fourth in the past five years) since the league went to a best-of-five format in 2005. Washington will host Game 5 on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN App); the home team for Game 5 has won the title four of the six previous times.

"We've been fighting all season for this," said Thomas, who came close to what would have been the first triple-double in the WNBA Finals, with 17 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds. "It's one last game. It's about giving everything you have."

This series has been about both teams doing what they do best, and we saw that especially in the first half Tuesday for the Sun.

The first quarter has been a bellwether in this series, and they dominated Tuesday's opening period 32-17. At halftime, the Sun were up 56-40, having spread out their offense and controlled the boards. Game 5 seemed like a certainty.

But not so fast. The Mystics had the WNBA's best offense this season, and it looked like it in the third quarter. Plus, they played much tighter defensively in the period, outscoring the Sun 28-12. Aerial Powers, who ended up leading the Mystics with 15 points, gave them a big lift off the bench.

"The championship was on the line, and we knew we had to play a whole lot tougher, a whole lot more like ourselves," Washington's Kristi Toliver said.

League MVP Elena Delle Donne missed most of Game 2, which the Mystics lost 99-87, because of what was diagnosed the next day as a herniated disk in her back. She was able to play 26 minutes Sunday, getting 13 points and six rebounds in Washington's 94-81 victory.

She said she felt a little better on Tuesday, but the Sun played tougher against her.

"Yeah, I was a little looser today," Delle Donne said. "Hopefully I'll continue to progress and feel even better Thursday. But, yeah, they were playing more aggressive defensively. They weren't just letting us sit outside and shoot 3s comfortably. So I was trying to just draw attention by driving and hoping to get other people open."

It came down to the fourth quarter. But Delle Donne struggled to move and get in position for her shots the way we're used to seeing her do. She went 0-of-2 from the floor and didn't score in the final quarter, finishing with 11 points.

Yet the Mystics nearly pulled it off. Emma Meesseman, who was scoreless in the first half, had 12 points in the second half. That included a big shot in the game's most scintillating stretch.

With 3 minutes, 9 seconds left and the score tied 81-81, Jasmine Thomas -- the D.C.-area native who started her career with the Mystics but has become a pillar for the Sun -- hit a 3-pointer that nearly blew the lid off Mohegan Sun Arena.

But Meesseman answered with a 3-pointer 25 seconds later. It was 84-84 with 2:44 left.

Then Jasmine Thomas had another decent look, but she opted to pass to Shekinna Stricklen. The Tennessee grad jokes that Lady Vols fans still sometimes tease her about playing for a team in Connecticut. And Stricklen is someone who grew up idolizing a former Mystics player, Tennessee legend Chamique Holdsclaw.

But Stricklen has found a home in Connecticut, and 3-pointers are her specialty. She led the Sun from beyond the arc in the regular season, with 76. She has 11 this postseason, none more important than the one she spotted up for with 2:23 left Tuesday.

"It was big," Stricklen said with a smile. "Jas turned down the shot, but she passed it to me. I knew Toliver was going to run at me hard. I pump-faked and did my side dribble. When it left my hand, I kind of knew that was pretty good."

It turned out to be the winning basket, putting the Sun up 87-86. The Mystics scored just once more, on a Natasha Cloud drive to the basket. The Sun defense took over from there.

The Sun have been particularly effective when 6-foot-6 Jonquel Jones gets touches in the paint, and that was the case Tuesday. She led the Sun with 18 points and 13 rebounds. Connecticut has had the same starting five every game this season, and they all scored in double figures on Tuesday.

All four games of these Finals have had at least one team reach 90 points, and neither has scored fewer than 81.

"There's times where this series is maddening that you can't get stops," Connecticut coach Curt 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."

A decisive fifth game on Thursday is good, too. What more can you ask for?

"Our heads aren't down," said Washington's Natasha Cloud, who had 13 points and nine assists Tuesday. "This team has been relentless all season long. We're ready for this. We go home and regroup."

The fact that the Mystics have to do that, instead of going home with the trophy, comes down to the Sun's resilience in their final home game of 2019. The past two seasons, Connecticut was eliminated from the playoffs on home court.

"The growth and chemistry of this team has helped us keep each other together," Stricklen said. "That's what we did tonight. We had tight huddles. We kept talking to each other: 'All right. We're good. Just keep grinding.' That's what we did."