Tina Charles’ last WNBA playoff game was Sept. 10, 2017. Charles led the New York Liberty with 18 points, but her team was upset by the Washington Mystics in the single-elimination second round.
After a game Saturday against those same Mystics, Charles found out her Seattle Storm had clinched a spot for the seventh straight season. She immediately teared up.
“I know for these guys, it’s something that always happens for them,” said Charles, who signed with Seattle in late June. “But then you have a player like me — bounced around and just trying to win.
“I’m just very thankful that I have an opportunity to be with this organization. I don’t take anything for granted.”
The Storm held off a frantic Mystics push to win 82-77, a potential playoff preview with home-court advantage implications at Entertainment & Sports Arena in Washington, D.C.
There was a hotly debated and, Seattle argued, phantom timeout call with 22.8 seconds left. Coach Noelle Quinn and veteran Sue Bird protested they didn’t want one but the team had little choice but to go ahead and use it.
“It was chaos, honestly,” Quinn said. “It’s a big call. It’s in the midst of a big game.”
From there, the Storm shut down Elena Delle Donne’s drive. Breanna Stewart’s free throws put Seattle up by three and Ariel Atkins’ look from beyond the arc clanged off the rim.
Seattle (19-11) won the season series. The Storm took the first meeting 85-71 and the teams will come together again Sunday at noon.
The Storm and Mystics entered the game with matching 18-11 records and locked in the middle of the playoff field at fourth and fifth, respectively.
“We weathered that storm,” Stewart said. “We continued to keep playing. Despite it all — confusing amount of timeouts, things like that — we were able to get stops when we needed it and knocked down free throws.”
Washington brought smothering defense and disruption early, and Seattle didn’t take its first lead until the final three minutes of the first half. Delle Donne (game-high 22 points, three blocked shots) stuck to Stewart and the Mystics limited the WNBA leader in points per game (21.1) to seven in the first half.
Charles (16 points, nine rebounds) got hot as the Storm trimmed a nine-point deficit. The teams went into halftime tied at 35. Charles reached double-digit points just over a minute after play resumed. Her jump shot was blocked but she held onto it and tried again.
Near the end of the third quarter, technical fouls were called on the Mystics as the Storm went for a wide-open layup — one on the bench, one on coach Mike Thibault, per ESPN. Washington came out of that confusion fired up and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough got Washington back within one.
After a disappointing outing in Connecticut, the Seattle bench led the way on a critical run Saturday. Back-to-back steals and conversions from Epiphanny Prince put the Storm up by 10 a few minutes into the fourth quarter. Stephanie Talbot hit a timely three. Ezi Magbegor turned in six rebounds with a steal and a blocked shot.
“She’s so valuable to what we do and so key to our success,” Quinn said.
Atkins’ three-pointer got the Mystics closer, 74-69, with just over two minutes left. Jewell Loyd created and maintained Seattle’s seven-point lead for a bit before Alysha Clark made it a one-point contest again.
“You don’t want to lose a lead. You don’t want to turn it over late. You don’t want to give up fouls late,” Quinn said. “These are things that we have to grow through and go through in order for us to get over the hump and to go through it together right now is not necessarily ideal, but I think it’s important for this specific team.”
Washington entered Saturday on a three-game win streak after shooting 56.4% from the field in an 87-77 victory at Dallas on Thursday. The Storm were coming off an 88-83 loss against the Sun, which delayed the assurance of Charles’ postseason return another two days.
It’s expected of Seattle by now. But as she wiped her eyes, Charles noted how special it was.
“I love that for her. I love that for us,” Quinn said.