The regular season may not yet be over, but apparently somebody forgot to mention that to the Washington Mystics and the New York Liberty, who put on a playoff-like performance for a crowd of 13,000 at the Verizon Center on Friday. This was the type of game you hope for every time you sit down to watch: persistent, pesky defense, buzzer-beating shots and a high-stakes atmosphere for the full 40 minutes.
With the Liberty trying to extend their 10-game winning streak and both teams battling for position atop the Eastern conference, the game came down to which team could hit the bigger shot with the least amount of time left. In the end, it was Washington guard Lindsey Harding who hit the layup with 8.8 seconds left to put them up one, and the Mystics’ scrappy defense under the Liberty basket that allowed them to come out with the huge conference win
The game was tight throughout, with the largest lead of 12 for the Mystics coming at the end of the 3rd quarter. There were 9 ties and 6 lead changes over the course of the game, and none were more suspenseful than the four that came, rapid-fire, in the last 3 minutes. Liberty star Cappie Pondexter had 10 of her 28 points in the 4th, and 6 of those came from the free throw line. New York scratched and clawed back into the game just to see their run end with a few missed chip shots under their basket in the final seconds.
While it was no surprise that the Mystics starters would play well, the real treat was watching bench players Matee Ajavon (16 points, 2 steals) and Marissa Coleman (9 points, 5 rebounds) not only play great basketball throughout the game, but make huge plays down the stretch. Coach Julie Plank had high praise for her young guard. "Matee Ajavon, I mean she came up big," Plank said. "She played great defense on Cappie, got a lot of loose balls, a lot of steals."
With 21 seconds left in the game, Marissa Coleman, who had been diving for loose balls and really playing aggressively throughout, put back a missed shot to stop the Liberty from running away with the game and put Washington back on top. Pondexter, ever the big-time player, banked in a jumper with 12 seconds left. Harding hit her layup in response, and it was then that the Mystics defense finished off the game. Plank said, "We told our team, ‘we’re gonna win it with our defense’", and they did.
The Mystics play their last regular season game in Atlanta on Sunday at 3:00 p.m. EST. Indiana lost to San Antonio on Friday, putting them in a three-way tie with the Mystics and Liberty. Even if all three teams win their final games, the Mystics take the first seed with tie-breakers over the other two. The players are just as excited about this prospect as the fans. "Mystics haven’t been in this position for… ever," Ajavon said. "So just to get home court advantage, return back to our fans, and let them enjoy us being in the playoffs is big." Looking at the bigger picture, Harding said, "We all have the same goal. We’ve all had our ups and downs, and gone through a lot of things… we may never have this opportunity again so we’re gonna definitely enjoy it."