Elena Delle Donne’s return lifts Mystics to within game of WNBA title

Washington’s Elena Delle Donne (right) celebrates with Aerial Powers (left) and Emma Meesseman as time winds down on the Mystics’ Game 3 victory in Uncasville, Conn.
Washington’s Elena Delle Donne (right) celebrates with Aerial Powers (left) and Emma Meesseman as time winds down on the Mystics’ Game 3 victory in Uncasville, Conn.Jessica Hill/Associated press/FR125654 AP via AP

UNCASVILLE, Conn. — Elena Delle Donne put forth a gutsy effort, playing through a back injury, and Washington beat the Connecticut Sun, 94-81, on Sunday and moved within a victory of winning the franchise’s first title.

The league’s MVP has a herniated disk that is pinching a nerve in her back and was questionable to play in Game 3. She finished with 13 points, hitting 5 of her 6 shots, and played 26 minutes.

‘‘I just want to be a leader for this team. I love them. I did nothing, I was just on the court, they carried me and they've done that all season long,’’ Delle Donne said. ‘‘I love them to death. We have one more to go.’’


She was clearly limited in her movement and stayed mostly on the perimeter, but was effective enough to command the attention of Connecticut’s defense.

‘‘It was tough. This is tough. This is not something I expected,’’ Delle Donne said of the injury. ‘‘It is what it is. You’re dealt the cards and you have to go out and play.’’

Delle Donne provided an emotional lift for her team and Emma Meesseman and Kristi Toliver carried the offense. Meesseman had 21 points, including 9 to start the fourth quarter, and Toliver added 20 points and 10 assists.

Washington will try and close out the series on Tuesday night in Connecticut.

Delle Donne hit an early 3-pointer and the Mystics made six of their nine shots from behind the arc in the first quarter to take a 32-17 lead after 10 minutes.

The 6-foot-5-inch Delle Donne, who averaged 19.5 points and 8.2 rebounds this season, left Tuesday’s 99-87 Game 2 loss without scoring a point after playing only a few minutes in the first quarter. There were a few scary moments for her Sunday. She went down to her knees for a loose ball just over five minutes into the game, was subbed out, and went straight to the tunnel. But she returned a few minutes later.


The team said it was part of the plan to keep her back warm by having her stretch with the trainers instead of sitting on the bench.

‘‘Her presence alone, whether she’s 100 percent or 10 percent just instills confidence in the rest of the group,’’ said Toliver. ‘‘She showed a lot of character. She showed a lot of heart just being out there on the court today.’’

Washington, which was 16 for 27 on 3s, led by as many as 17 points in the first half. It was 37-23 before the Sun went on a 16-4 run and Washington led, 43-39, at the break.

Jonquel Jones converted a 3-point play to open the third quarter and cut the lead to 1, but that was as close as Connecticut would get.

‘‘When the ball was up, they just didn’t care if they were getting a rebound or not, they were making sure they were hitting me, keeping me off the offensive glass,’’ Jones said. ‘‘It hurt us that I wasn’t able to get on the boards.’’

The Sun trailed by 2 when Delle Donne hit a 3-pointer from the left wing to make it 58-53. The Mystics took a 68-57 lead into the fourth quarter and stretched that to 18 before a final run by the Sun that Delle Donne ended with a tough layup.


Shekinna Stricklen and Jasmine Thomas each had 16 points for the Sun. Jones, who scored 32 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in Connecticut’s Game 2 win, scored just 9 points to go with her nine boards.

This was the first Finals game at the Mohegan Sun since they went to back-to-back in 2004 and 2005. That team was led by current Mystics coach Mike Thibault, who spent 10 years in Uncasville before being fired in 2012.

‘‘It’s a little weird,’’ he said. ‘‘I invested a lot while I was here. But the people I coached, the people I worked with most of them are gone. So, the same feel is not there.’’