ATLANTA -- In the fourth quarter, with their season on the line, the Atlanta Dream finally woke up and handled business, closing the game with an 18-6 run for an 80-72 series-clinching victory over the Washington Mystics.
The Dream, who were down by as many as 11, trailed by two headed into the fourth quarter until Erika De Souza shook her team out of a deep REM sleep, scoring 10 of her 18 points and grabbing seven of her 14 rebounds in the final quarter. Her statistical and emotional leadership propelled the Dream to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will face Indiana in a best-of-three playoff that begins Thursday.
“Wow,” said Angel McCoughtry of her teammate’s performance. “She played so well. She has been the rock of this team. She made some big baskets down the stretch that really helped us get the lead tonight.”
“Erika was terrific tonight,” complimented Washington coach Mike Thibault. “That was two games in a row that she dominated on the boards. She had more offensive rebounds than our entire starting lineup by herself.”
Scoring champion McCoughtry, who has yet to have a breakout game in the playoffs, had another quiet night with just 13 points, well below her season average of 21.5, yet she found other ways to help her team by posting seven assists and three steals, with five of her dimes coming in the fourth quarter.
While it’s easy to key in on De Souza’s fourth quarter performance, the game might have been saved by Armintie Herrington’s first half. Herrington played out of her mind on defense in those first 16 minutes, getting three steals and a block in addition to three assists and ten points. Her energy and leadership kept the Dream from falling too far behind after a rocky start.
The Mystics came out of the gates very strong for an early 11-point lead behind the hot shooting of Monique Currie, who had a game high 22 points, and Ivory Latta, who added 15. Many of the Dream fans were nervous this would turn into a repeat performance of game one as the Mystics maintained the lead for the entire first half, and in fact, the majority of the game.
But as the game wore on, Atlanta proved it had the mental toughness to close out the series. The Dream out-rebounded the Mystics 21-8 in the second half and showed great teamwork down the stretch. Tiffany Hayes also came up big, scoring 18 points including 50 percent from behind the arc. Hayes made up for McCoughty’s shooting woes; Angel went 0-for-5 from three-point land and was 4-for-19 from the field.
The Mystics' Crystal Langhorne turned in another disappointing performance, finishing with just five points. Meanwhile, the Washington bench was just as pathetic, offering up just 11 points compared to the 21 by the Dreams’ second string. The Mystics, who returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, go home with some playoff experience that WNBA Coach of the Year Thibault will build on.
“When it comes right down to it, we had a heck of a season in a lot of ways and it is frustrating to have a two-point lead going into the fourth quarter and get beat at a game that is a winnable game," said Thibault. “But I thought that Atlanta’s experience and willingness to do the dirty work changed the game.”
Atlanta will now face the defending champion Indiana Fever, who surprised many people by sweeping the top-seeded Chicago Sky. What Atlanta cannot do in this series is waste home court advantage, as Chicago did. If the Dream lose game one at home as they did against Washington, it’s over -- the Fever will sweep. The Dream must do what has gotten them wins all season: win the battle on the boards and play aggressive, stifling defense.
But even more critical is the energy and leadership that was shown in game three by Herrington and De Souza. These two veterans must continue to keep this team focused and playing with eyes wide open, not like the team that slept-walked into the first round of the playoffs.