WASHINGTON — Emma Meesseman looked focused as she positioned herself under the basket for teammate Kristi Toliver’s free throw attempts. She clapped her hands forcefully as she bent her knees, but the Washington Mystics forward was otherwise stoic.
Toliver wasn’t on the line yet. None of their other teammates were by the basket, either. Toliver was near the half-court line with Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud, exchanging hugs and high-fives as Game 5’s inevitable conclusion was fast approaching.
But for Meesseman, 28 seconds were still standing between her and her team’s first WNBA title. So she did what she had done all season long and was ready to do whatever her team needed to finish the job.
Toliver made both of her foul shots, the final points of the contest, and the Mystics emerged as champions just seconds later with a 89-78 win over the Connecticut Sun in front of an ecstatic sellout crowd on their home court. As the final moments ticked down at Entertainment and Sports Arena, Meesseman put her hands on her head, and her face filled with a smile as she walked toward her teammates before the red, white and blue confetti poured down from the rafters of the arena.
She had done what she had set out to do, and now she was picking confetti out of her hair and looking for her mother to hug.
And Meesseman hadn’t just been a part of it; the 6-foot-4 26-year-old — who was in Washington coach Mike Thibault’s words, “The missing piece.” — was named the WNBA Finals MVP.
A member of the Mystics since being selected with the 19th overall pick in the 2013 WNBA draft, Meesseman missed the entire 2018 season to focus on her Belgian team commitments and spend time with her family in her native country. The Mystics advanced to the WNBA Finals in her absence, but they were swept by the Seattle Storm. She returned to the team in the spring, joining a group determined to avenge the bitter loss.
She missed a portion of the 2019 season to play in the European championship, but she has done whatever she can to help the mission. Coming off the bench for most of the season, including the Finals, Meesseman thrived in the role of sixth woman. She averaged 21.8 points per game in the postseason and earned the deserving nickname “Playoff Emma.”
Thibault and her Mystics teammates have repeatedly called it a breakthrough season for Meesseman, and they praised her growth and confidence on and off the court. But it still was a welcome surprise for them to watch her take over Game 5 at its most crucial moments.
After the Sun went on an 8-0 run to take a 53-44 lead with 6:39 to play in the third quarter Thursday, Meesseman took control when it was needed most. Taking advantage of the temporary absence of Jonquel Jones, who was in foul trouble, Meesseman drove the lane, nailed jumpers, got to the foul line and ultimately provided the offensive firepower the Mystics needed. After that Sun run, she scored 11 points — the last of which briefly tied the score at 62 — and was everywhere on the floor.
Sun coach Curt Miller said Meesseman’s was her versatility that made her so dangerous and credited her for capitalizing on one-on-one isolations, and the outcome was Connecticut simply couldn’t contain her.
“I just really, really wanted to win this game, so I just came on the court, and I knew that it was a moment that we needed some energy, and I was just going at the basket and it was going in, so I just kept going,” she said after the game. “Coach has been talking about, if your shot is going in, or even if not, you just have to take your opportunity, and I don’t think that I would have done this a year ago or two years ago in the past. I think that these playoffs were the moment that I really realized that I have to take my responsibility and I can play.
“So that’s just what I did, you know. But it’s really not something that I would have done the past few years.”
Meesseman finished with 22 points, three rebounds, three assists and two big-moment steals in 27 minutes. Still, despite her stat line, the perpetually humble and soft-spoken Meesseman looked stunned when she was named Finals MVP over the loudspeaker. She was matter-of-fact when accepting the trophy.
“I don’t think I’m the missing piece,” she said. “I’m their teammate [and I did what] I needed to do help my team win a championship. This is my family right here.”
Meesseman was soon approached by various members of the Belgian media — who had come stateside to cover the Finals solely because of her contributions. She showed her new hardware to a television crew before taking in the scene unfolding around her.
Meesseman is often overshadowed on a team with players like Delle Donne, the league’s regular-season MVP and one of its most-recognized stars; Cloud, the brash playmaker who guaranteed a Game 5 victory in a now-viral locker room video from Tuesday; and Toliver, the celebrated veteran who also won a title in 2016 with the Los Angeles Sparks. But while the attention might not have been on her like it was her teammates, Meesseman made it impossible to be overlooked.
“Messy is a very, very, very good basketball player,” said Toliver, while still wearing her champagne goggles after the game. “… So for her, her humility, just being a good person, a great teammate, an amazing basketball player, she was the missing piece. And so obviously we’re all extremely thankful that she was here this year.
“She was the difference, and she has also grown, because I’ve had an opportunity to play with her even in Europe and won championships with her in Europe. But the way she played tonight in the moments that she wanted the ball in the biggest moments, and a couple years ago she didn’t. And so that’s a huge credit to her and her growth as a player and a person. So she was enormous for us.”