WASHINGTON -- With 1 second left on the clock in the third quarter and Atlanta leading Washington by two, Tiffany Hayes pulled up for a 3-pointer in the right corner as time expired. Upon review, however, the call was reversed, stripping the Dream of a potential five-point lead heading into the final period of Game 3 on Friday.
Make or not, it didn't bother Dream coach Nicki Collen. Made shots came at a premium all game long for both teams in this WNBA semifinal series, and just seeing the ball go through the net -- particularly from beyond the arc, where Atlanta had converted just 3 of 14 attempts through three quarters -- was a welcome sight.
And, as Collen knows, the Dream are unbeatable whenever they take a lead into the fourth quarter, no matter how slim the advantage.
"This team knows how to win games late," Collen said. "When you get into tight situations there's rarely much panic with this group."
Behind the dominant play of Hayes and Brittney Sykes, who sank two fourth-quarter 3-pointers, the Dream manufactured an advantage that the Mystics -- who played without injured Elena Delle Donne -- couldn't overcome.
Atlanta beat Washington 81-76 and can close out the series in Game 4 on Sunday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN2). And the Dream are now 18-0 this season when taking a lead into the fourth quarter.
Hayes led the Dream in scoring in the regular season but had gotten off to what some could consider a sluggish start in the semifinals. The standout guard put in a more characteristic performance in Game 3, finishing with 23 points.
"I just took what the defense gave me," said Hayes, who also had 11 rebounds. "If I was open or if I thought I could beat somebody off the dribble and get to the rim or hit a shot, then that's what I was going to do."
The Mystics reportedly tried every trick in the book, from hyperbaric chambers to Epsom salt baths, to get Delle Donne on the court Friday, but the star told ESPN's LaChina Robinson her knee was still too swollen to play. Delle Donne, who is averaging 26 points and 13 rebounds in the playoffs, suffered a bone bruise late in the fourth quarter of Tuesday's Game 2 in Atlanta.
Without Delle Donne, Washington coach Mike Thibault played a four-guard lineup for much of the game in an attempt to spread the floor and draw out Atlanta bigs Jessica Breland and Elizabeth Williams. Thibault, whose team shot just 5-of-23 on 3-pointers, deployed Aerial Powers at the 4 spot "out of necessity."
Despite not seeing any time there all season, Powers delivered. She led Washington with 18 points, tying her season high, and was unafraid to battle with the Dream frontcourt. She went 8-of-8 from the free throw line, and six of her eight rebounds came on the offensive end.
"I was a little nervous because I didn't really know the plays [in the 4 role]," Powers said. "I'm the kind of player that, whatever the team needs, I try to give to them."
Midway through the third quarter, Atlanta looked ready to run away with the game after building a 48-38 lead thanks to Williams, who broke through with six points in the quarter's opening minutes. But Washington countered with a gutsy run, outscoring Atlanta 12-1 in the ensuing three minutes. Powers led the way with four points, and by run's end, the Mystics were up 50-49.
Without Delle Donne in the rotation, however, Washington's offense looked stagnant for many long stretches, a far cry from the free-flowing, up-tempo offense that shot Los Angeles out of the gym the last time the Mystics took the Charles E. Smith Center floor.
"It's like any star in this league," Thibault said. "Your team is never going to be the same without them."
Kristi Toliver, who entered Friday's contest shooting just 29 percent through the first two games of the series, struggled to find quality looks against the Atlanta backcourt tandem of Hayes and Alex Bentley. Toliver, who played all 40 minutes, went 3-of-15 from the field and made 1 of 9 from beyond the arc; the lone make didn't come until there were three minutes to play in the third quarter. In the absence of Delle Donne, the Dream knew they needed to neutralize Toliver's production if they were going to steal a road win in this series.
"Me and Bentley take turns [on Toliver]," Hayes said. "It gets us tired because she's all over the place. I can take a break when I'm tired and Bentley comes in and she takes a break when I'm in the game. It's good to have two people that have great defense on her at all times."
In addition to Hayes, the Dream backcourt was able to make plays and create offense to spread the Mystics' defense thin. Sykes finished with 17 points while Bentley provided 10 off the bench. Despite a slow start on the interior, Breland and Williams combined for 23 points and 19 rebounds.
Atlanta, which continues an impressive run without injured star guard Angel McCoughtry, is now on the verge of advancing to the WNBA Finals after starting the season largely under the radar as a contender. Sunday, the Dream will try to earn their first Finals berth since 2013.
"I think we've done a good job of earning our respect, even if we are overlooked," Williams said. "We have been so focused on us and building what we have. ... It just feels really good to be here."