Dream rally to win Game 3, series from Mystics
ATLANTA -- If it had been a movie they would have called it "Erika's Choice".
Before the Atlanta Dream began their three-game series against the Washington Mystics in the WNBA Eastern Conference semifinals, Brazilian center Erika de Souza, one of the best low-post players in women's basketball, had to choose between returning to her home country to help the national team qualify for the World Championships in Turkey, or stay with her teammates in Atlanta. It was a heart-wrenching call, one she still has trouble discussing without emotions pouring out. With the 2016 Olympics looming in Brazil, every international competition is important. But de Souza stayed with her WNBA teammates, and once the decision was made, she played with an intensity and determination not seen all year.
On Monday night, after three quarters of what could only be described as lackluster basketball, de Souza took over the final game of the series, leading Atlanta to an 80-72 win and a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.
"I am very sad not to be with my companions in a series that is so important to our trip to the World Championships," de Souza told SporTV in Rio once her decision to stay in Atlanta had been made. "I would love to be with them at this time and help you with all my energy and heart as I always have. Unfortunately, this time I cannot leave."
All the emotion that went into that decision poured forth on the court at Philips Arena on Monday as de Souza had 18 points and 14 rebounds with 10 points and seven boards coming in the fourth quarter. She also got almost every loose ball and raised the emotions of teammates and the fans. Even Dream Coach Fred Williams got caught up in de Souza's exuberance. "Her arms go flying (after she makes a basket) and I almost got hit in the head,” he said.
Atlanta never led until the 3:24 mark in the third quarter, and for the first 30 minutes it looked like this would be another bad shooting night for the home team. The Dream had one basket in the first three minutes, a garbage layup by Angel McCoughtry after a couple of misses and some batted-ball rebounds. Through the first 30 minutes, the Mystics shot 50 percent from the floor to Atlanta's 34 percent. Still the game was close. Atlanta’s first lead at 53-52 came when de Souza banked one in from under the basket off an Angel McCoughtry steal and a great pass from Alex Bentley. But Atlanta didn't score another point in the third quarter, picking up five team fouls and a lane violation call before losing all awareness and letting the clock run out without taking a shot.
The team seemed discombobulated and appeared to be looking for leadership when de Souza stepped up and became the floor general. In addition to her points and rebounds she had two steals in the final period and her defense shut down the Mystics’ inside game.
"Erika was terrific tonight," Mystics' coach Mike Thibault said afterward. "She had 14 rebounds tonight and 15 in the last game. She had more offensive rebounds tonight than out entire offensive lineup. I think that she and (Tiffany) Hayes and (Armintie) Herrington were the difference in this series. They got to every loose ball and came up with second and third shots. And they've been through this sort of (playoff) experience before and it showed. In the final five minutes, they made bigger plays than we did."
DeSouza's teammates agreed with Thibault's assessment. Angel McCoughtry, who finished with 13 points and seven assists, said, "Erika has been our rock all season. What she does around the bounds, getting her shots, fighting through when they're double-teaming her, she made some really big baskets down the stretch to help us get the lead tonight." After the game, as she soaked her knees in a cold tub, the emotions bubbled to the surface again. The Dream will move on to play Indiana in the Eastern Conference finals, but Team Brazil will play Mexico in the America's Cup without de Souza.
"It is the first time that I'm here for the playoffs, as I had to leave (to go to Brazil) the times before,” she said. "But I know that I made the right choice. I knew that they needed me here because of the injuries. But from the moment that I denied the national team, I have been here fully. Now I am only thinking about the team. I cannot think about myself. Only the team."