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Delle Donne, Mystics hold off Dream to win semifinal opener

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Delle Donne, Mystics hold off Dream to win semifinal opener

ATLANTA (AP) -- Elena Delle Donne had 32 points and 13 rebounds, Ariel Atkins added 15 points and the Washington Mystics beat the Atlanta Dream 87-84 in the first game of a best-of-five WNBA semifinal on Sunday.

The Mystics hit all 20 of their free-throw attempts.

Elizabeth Williams finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds for Atlanta, which never led. Alex Bentley's 3 pulled the Dream within three points midway through the fourth quarter and Tiffany Hayes scored six straight points for the game's final points in the closing minute.

But Hayes missed an ensuing layup, and Jessica Breland couldn't hit a straightaway 3 on Atlanta's last possession before time expired.

Hayes, the Dream's season scoring leader, had 17 points but was mostly a non-factor until the fourth quarter.

In a matchup of two of the league's hottest teams, Delle Donne was too much for Atlanta, using her size and agility to win matchups inside for layups, bank shots and forced turnovers. 

She was at her best in the third after the Dream cut the lead to eight. Jessica Breland blocked her midrange jumper, but Delle Donne pulled the ball back, dribbled and pivoted to bank in a layup that made it 62-52.

The Dream had won 15 of 17, but it won't get any easier the rest of the way with Angel McCoughtry, their longtime star guard, out for the season with a knee injury sustained earlier this month.

Washington, which has won 10 of 11, got consecutive 3s by Atkins and Natasha Cloud to open the third and take its biggest lead at 15, but Atlanta stayed close and trailed by four when Monique Billings converted a three-point play in the closing seconds of the period.

Bentley's layup in the first minute of the fourth cut the lead to one, but Delle Donne answered with a layup. When Bentley hit a 3 that made it 74-71, Delle Donne followed a few minutes later with a 3 that put the Mystics up 81-71.

FARTHER TO GO

Washington is trying to advance past the semifinals for the first time in its 21 seasons, but they're back for the second straight year after getting swept in 2017 by eventual champion Minnesota.

The Dream have ended three seasons in the finals but were swept each time.

LITTLE TOO LATE

Hayes banked in a fastbreak jumper and hit the ensuing free throw to pull Atlanta within three with 58.9 seconds to go, but her contributions were few in the first three quarters.

She was 6 for 15 from the field and hit just one of five attempts beyond the arc.

STAR TIME

Delle Donne, who finished third in the league's MVP voting, was 10 for 22 from the field and hit all 10 of her free-throw attempts.

NASCAR Countdown: 1 Final Time For The G.O.A.T.

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USA TODAY Sports

NASCAR Countdown: 1 Final Time For The G.O.A.T.

NBC Sports Washington is counting down big NASCAR moments leading up to the Daytona 500. Be sure to check out our other coverage below.

We’ve hit on a lot in this countdown. From the best Daytona 500 finishes, to silly season moves, to Hall of Famers and everything in between.

But with one day remaining until the Great American Race, this day is reserved for one specific driver who happens to be hanging up his full-time driving helmet at the end of the season.

The greatest NASCAR driver of all-time: Jimmie Johnson.

When Jeff Gordon told Rick Hendrick to hire Jimmie Johnson, it’s safe to say he didn’t expect the then mid-20s California kid to surpass his success in the Cup Series. But right off the bat, he showed signs he had it.

It took Johnson 10 races to reach Victory Lane, albeit at his home track of Auto Club Speedway. And then three races later, his first of a NASCAR record 11 wins at Dover International Speedway. The baby-faced California kid was no longer a dirt motorbike racer on two-wheels. He was a full-fledged stock car driver.

He finished fifth in the championship standings his rookie year, but didn’t even win the Rookie of the Year award thanks to Ryan Newman’s stellar campaign. Three more wins in 2003 and a second-place finish in the standings, a whopping eight checkered flags in 2004 and another runner-up finish. He had arrived. He was “big time.” The championships were coming.

After four more wins and another fifth-place finish in 2005, the dominance began. He and crew chief Chad Knaus. 2006: a championship...and 2007, 2008...2009 and 2010. Fives titles in a row, eclipsing Cale Yarborough’s then-record of three consecutive titles.

NASCAR doesn’t get as much attention as the NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB. But any sports fan can appreciate dominance when they see it. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick didn’t win five straight. Neither did Shaq and Kobe. It’s the most impressive feat by a team in the modern era of sports. 

After two years of failing to win it all, he returned to championship form, winning his sixth in 2013. NASCAR then again changed the championship format to go to a winner-take-all, championship four style format. And after another two-year break, Johnson did it again.

His record-tying seventh title came in 2016, using his patented passing skills to get by Kyle Larson on a late-race restart to claim his first career win at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a track that had crowned him champion six times, but had never given him the “race winner” title.

His quest to defend the title in 2017 was a tough one. Although he won three times, he finished 10th in the standings, only the third time in his career he’d finished 10th or worse

In recent years, his performance has been lackluster to put it lightly. No wins for the first time ever in 2018, and a missed playoff appearance for the first time ever in 2019. Johnson has gone almost two calendar years without winning a points-paying race.

Sure, age has something to do with it. But his team (Hendrick Motorsports) hasn’t kept up with the times, either. They, along with Chevrolet as a manufacturer, have fallen behind Toyota and Ford in recent years. Performance across the board has suffered.

This past offseason, Johnson announced 2020 would be his final year racing full-time in the Cup Series. Some people blamed his performance as a factor, some blamed age.

I’d chalk it up to a little bit of both. But I’m going to watch Johnson’s 2020 season through the lens of appreciation. It’s not often that you get to live through an era where the best to ever do it competes. Right in front of your eyes.

That’s what we’ve gotten to see from Jimmie Johnson.

Here's the bottom line: NASCAR literally changed the generation of stock cars the field ran three separate times and changed the playoff field three times along the way.

Regardless, Johnson and Knaus continued winning no matter.

After winning his seventh title, the hashtag “#Chasing8” was a rallying cry for Johnson supporters on social media. But after his announcement, he decided to change that hashtag to something a little more sentimental.

“#OneFinalTime”

So when Johnson likely competes in his last Daytona 500, and races at Las Vegas, Atlanta, Dover, leads his final laps, perhaps wins his final race, takes his final checkered flag, the list goes on: appreciate it. Because there’ll never be another Jimmie Johnson.

He’s one of a kind.

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NASCAR Countdown: 2 Potential Breakout Stars

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USA TODAY Sports

NASCAR Countdown: 2 Potential Breakout Stars

NBC Sports Washington is counting down big NASCAR moments leading up to the Daytona 500. Be sure to check out our other coverage below.

Each year, there seems to be one or two drivers who open some eyes. Maybe it’s because not much was expected from them prior to the season, maybe it’s because they make headlines, maybe it’s somewhere in between. Here are a couple of drivers who may take the leap from somewhere around “average” driver to Victory Lane and superstardom.

2. Matt DiBenedetto, No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford

It’s not often that a winless Cup driver finishes top five in Most Popular Driver voting, but it’s also not often that someone like Matt DiBenedetto comes along.

As cliche as it is, he’s regarded as the most genuine guy in the garage. He doesn’t come from money, doesn’t bring sponsorship, hasn’t gotten a “good” opportunity to showcase his driving talent in race-winning equipment, but still rakes in fan support like nobody else.

Now, running the iconic No. 21 for the Wood Brothers, he has that equipment. WBR has a technical alliance with Team Penske, essentially putting DiBenedetto in a Penske car and having access to information his quasi teammates Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and Ryan Blaney have.

Last season’s runner-up finish at Bristol, and the reaction from the fans and DiBenedetto following his heartbreak of coming oh-so-close in a B-tier team pretty much said it all.

To put DiBenedetto in the playoff field in 2020 wouldn’t be a stretch at all. Heck, he could even win a race and give the team their 100th win as an organization. If he delivers on either of those, you could see Guido’s confidence and popularity skyrocket into a new stratosphere.

1. William Byron, No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Although well-told, William Byron’s story and rise through the NASCAR ranks is one of a kind. The now 21-year-old began racing on a computer simulation called iRacing, now popular in the racing world and played by hundreds of thousands of people.

“How did he go from playing a video game to racing for one of the most prestigious teams in motorsports?” Well, not so fast. iRacing isn’t a video game: it’s the most realistic racing simulator available to the general public. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, and several other drivers, past, present and future, regularly compete on the forum.

Byron scored five top fives and 13 top 10 finishes last season, and seemed to get better as the season went along. Meshing with seven-time championship-winning crew chief Chad Knaus sure took some time, but once things began to turn a corner, the results showed.

He wound up 11th in the standings and short of Victory Lane, but Byron, given his rapid rise, should be a winner in the Cup Series this season. HMS and Chevrolet have been bullish on the new Camaro that’ll debut on track, and with another year of Cup racing under his belt, 2020 may be the year William Byron puts himself into the conversation as the best driver at Hendrick.

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