Atlanta, GA — Pressure is a funny thing when it comes to sports. It presents you with a choice. You either feast on it, fueling you to a level of play higher than you ever expect you could go. Or it consumes you. Engulfing you as you crumble under its weight.
The final week of the WNBA's 20th season dealt out its fair share of pressure. With the top teams set firmly in place and the bottom teams just riding out the rest of the season, the teams in between were fighting new battles with every game.
Both the Washington Mystics and the Atlanta Dream felt that heat in last night’s matchup. Albeit in varying degrees. The Dream, sat in the fifth spot, had already punched their playoff ticket but were fighting for a first round bye.
The Mystics, however, were in a win-or-go-home situation. In ninth position and just a game behind the Phoenix Mercury, Washington needed a win to stay in contention.
With that in mind, they stormed out with guns blazing. Just 31 seconds in, Atlanta head coach, Michael Cooper, called a timeout after the defense left the best three-point shooter in the league, Emma Meesseman, wide open. She missed the shot, but the early mistake riled the Dream.
The timeout played into Washington's hands. They shot six of eight to stretch out to a 16-6 lead and force Atlanta to take another time out. This time, the timeout kicked the Dream into gear.
With Angel McCoughtry coming off a one-game suspension, she went into overdrive to help out her team. In the first quarter, she put up 13 points for Atlanta and wreaked havoc for the Mystics defense, knocking them out of sync.
She continued her dominance in the second quarter, giving the Dream an edge. On the other end of the court, they managed to find a way to control Washington's shooting and eliminate its three-point game. By the end of the half, Atlanta held a 52-45 lead, thanks in large part to McCoughtry's unstoppable 23-point explosion.
After playing catch up and taking the lead, the Dream were too comfortable and reverted to passive play to start the second half. Stefanie Dolson drained a jumper right off the bat for the Mystics. Then back-to-back Atlanta turnovers lead to more points for Washington as they took the lead.
Atlanta eventually managed to regain composure as they remembered the importance of a win. But neither team was able to pull away, as the lead swung back and forth like a pendulum.
As the fourth quarter rolled around, the pressure cooker was set to burst with just two points separating the teams. The team fighting for survival had the edge and pulled away to a five-point lead, but Atlanta wasn't ready to back down yet.
The wheels started to come off for Washington with just three minutes to play. A loose ball foul from Dolson put the Mystics over the foul limit, and Elizabeth Williams sunk her two free throws to regain the lead.
The pressure came crashing down. Washington got four great looks off offensive rebounds, but wasn't able to convert a single one. Another loose ball foul sent Williams back to the line. She collected another point for Atlanta but a questionable call on McCoughtry denied her second attempt. Washington was handed a lifeline.
With 13 seconds left both teams were still hanging on. Taylor Hill gave the Mystics a one-point lead after making both her free throws. It was the Dream’s turn to feel the heat, but Tiffany Hayes kept her cool, driving through traffic to make the layup. Washington's inconsistent defense was exposed again.
"Tiffany Hayes' shot should never be allowed to happen," said Washington Head Coach, Mike Thibault. "She got all the way to the front of the rim. Our help was too late. We just did a bad job of defending them for 50 percent of the game tonight."
Another two Atlanta free throws meant Washington needed three points to tie the game with four seconds left. Natasha Cloud got the shot off in time but it completely missed the basket and the Mystics season came to a screeching halt. In a game where defense was lacking at times from both teams, it was defense that came through on the final play.
"We wanted to get anybody open, and they would have to take (the) shot. But, they switched everything. It was good defense by them," Meesseman said.
Washington handled the tension well for 39 minutes of the game, but the final minute they lost their cool, giving the Dream an exhilarating win to take into the playoffs.
"What a game. You've got to tip your hat to Washington. This is what I love about the format this season. It makes every game important, and it makes every game hard," said Cooper.
Atlanta's win draws the team closer to Chicago for the number four seed in the playoffs. On Saturday, they conclude regular season play against the league leaders Minnesota Lynx. Washington will have its last game of the season Sunday against Connecticut Sun.
But, as the Mystics head into the offseason, they will always have this question to ask: What if?