Once again, the Mystics (12-15) battled the Sky (18-8) in a game that was decided by single digits Tuesday night at the Verizon Center.
In the all-time series between the two teams neither has ever won by 20 points or more. This year make that eight or more.
However, the Sky are 3-1 in the season series, a stat that makes it difficult for the Mystics to enjoy the fact that they have played well against the best team in the East.
On Tuesday, it was Elena Delle Donne leading Chicago to a 79-73 victory over the Mystics in her first game back from a mid-foot sprain that sidelined her for two games over the span of a week. Delle Donne was good for a game-high 24 points and eight rebounds, while Sylvia Fowles added 16 and 15, which was fairly mild compared to the damage she has done in previous games against Washington.
Courtney Vandersloot set a new season high in points for the second consecutive game with 19 and she added seven assists and three steals for the Sky. The assists and steals were game highs. Delle Donne, Fowles and Vandersloot made up for a quiet night for Epiphanny Prince, who had just seven points off 2-10 shooting from the field.
The Sky clinched their first ever winning season and are now one win or one Liberty loss away from clinching their first trip to the playoffs.
The Mystics started the game off fast, just like they did this past Sunday at Atlanta. They led the Dream 28-21 and led the Sky 28-17 after one quarter. Against Chicago they went 11-20 from the field to open the game.
However, in both games, the Mystics fell victim to a mid-game lull. On Sunday they scored just nine points in both the second and third quarters. On Tuesday it was 13 and 12. So the Mystics have scored 56 points in their last two first quarters and just 43 in their last four "middle quarters" combined.
In the third quarter on Tuesday, the Mystics went 1-16 from the field and were in danger of setting a new low for points in a single quarter this season before sinking seven free throws in the final two minutes of the frame.
"Sometimes we catch teams a little complacent at the start of games," Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said. "And when they up their defensive pressure, we don't necessarily execute like you need to in those kinds of situations. You have be a little bit mentally tougher, you have to work a little harder to get open, you have to be able to make one more pass without turning it over."
One of the bright spots for Washington and one of the reasons they raced out to a great start was the play of Kia Vaughn. Vaughn scored 13 points in the first quarter on 6-8 shooting. She scored all 13 within a span of four minutes and five seconds and surpassed her previous season high of 10 points just seven minutes and 14 seconds into the game.
Kia went on to finish with 21 points on the night, along with six rebounds and three blocks. She also started for just the eighth time this season, but in 2011 she started all 34 games for the Liberty and averaged 10.1 points per game. It was also that year that she set her career high of 24 points, so it wasn't a huge surprise to see her finally break out a 20-point game for the Mystics.
"I just take what the team gives me," Vaughn said. "I didn't wake up saying this was gonna be the game, I just come prepared every game."
"It was a big plus, I think we caught them a little off guard," Thibault said of starting Vaughn. "They decided to put Fowles on Langhorne and be physical with her. So putting Kia down low against Delle Donne made them have to adjust their defense. As the game went on they helped more - they didn't play off Kia as much as they did earlier in the game. We don't need 21 from her every night, but if she can be consistent every night then we'll continue to get better."
Washington is now tied with the Fever for third place and the Liberty are just a game behind both of them. The Mystics are 0-2 during this stretch of games against the most feared teams in the East, with two games remaining, both against Atlanta. But regardless of the degree of difficulty of their schedule, Washington just needs to find a way to play .500 basketball or better down the stretch and they should be able to sneak into the playoffs.
"We just gotta buckle down, be a little bit smarter than we are right now," Vaughn said of fixing the mid-game lulls. "Overall we're trying to do things in a rush and we're being too anxious...We need to calm down, slow the pace down and read what they're giving us."