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Washington’s ‘ugly win’ over Sun comes without star

With Emma Meesseman out, Tayler Hill picked up the ball and led the Washington Mystics to victory against the Connecticut Sun in an early Wednesday morning battle.

Chris Poss - Swish Appeal

Washington, D.C -- The city of Washington, D.C. got treated to an early brunch at the Verizon Center on Wednesday, courtesy of the visiting Connecticut Sun and their home team Washington Mystics.

By brunch, they meant all-out war on the court, with Washington (4-2) fighting back from an early slump to defeat the Sun (1-5) 78-76. The Mystics, who have now won their last three in a row, would need all the offense they could get after losing leading three-point shooter Emma Meesseman for a month due to her commitments with the Belgian national team.

Connecticut fired off on all cylinders, scoring the first 10 points of the game before Washington could get a groove going. It wasn’t until a Kristi Toliver three-pointer with 6:45 left in the first that the Mystics got on the scoreboard. Once they scored, Washington didn’t stop, outscoring Connecticut 16-11 the rest of the way. However, Connecticut did escape with a 21-19 lead to end the first quarter.

Connecticut head coach Curt Miller credited the early offensive input to their diligent game planning.

“We knew what they were going to do coming into the game and we exploited how they play defense,” Miller said.

That lead didn’t last long though.

Tianna Hawkins came out of the gate swinging, scoring four quick points to give Washington its first lead of the game. The Mystics defense stifled Connecticut, slowing down the pace and only allowing 11 points in the quarter. The offense for Washington responded in kind, going 10-of-11 from the free throw line to give the Mystics a 34-32 lead going into the half.

Washington forward Elena Delle Donne commented on the defensive effort in the post-game interview.

"When shots aren't falling early in the season sometimes that will make a team lose a game, and we were able to stay in the game because of our defense and our rebounding. That's huge. It's something we will continue to improve and get better, and hopefully our shots will fall next time,” Delle Donne said.

After the half, both teams came out with their hands on their holsters like an old school Texas shootout. Krystal Thomas started off with the first points of the half for Washington, then Alyssa Thomas responded with a float-away of her own for Connecticut. Back and forth, both teams traded basket for basket, with the Mystics controlling most of the quarter.

However, it was the Sun that would begin to sow the seeds for a comeback of their own. With 0.5 seconds left in the third, Shekinna Stricklen made a jumper to cut the Mystic lead to 59-57. Connecticut then went on a 16-7 run to start the fourth quarter, ultimately taking a 73-66 lead.

“My teammates were looking for me. I was just moving. They were setting good screens and I was just being smart, knowing they were running at me. Pump faking. I had confidence in my shot,” Stricklen said.

Then, from out of nowhere, with a wave of her wand, Tayler Hill brought Washington back to life. A pair of free throws from Hill began a 12-3 rally. Thomas and Ivory Latta got in on the fun, adding three free throws and a basket of their own, while Hill added another pair to bring the Mystics score to 75.

Elena Delle Donne would end up knocking the Sun out of orbit to end the game, fighting for a layup and the foul. She made the and-1 to give Washington the 78-75 lead with 44.8 seconds left. Alex Bentley tried to get Connecticut back into the game with a three to tie, but missed and ultimately had to try her luck at the free throw line.

Bentley made one of three shots from the charity stripe, leaving the Sun short by two. A Jasmine Thomas layup to tie the game was blocked by Krystal Thomas.

Thomas wasn’t shy when asked about the back-and-forth tug of war between the teams in the postgame interview.

“It was very, very ugly, not the way we planned for it,” Thomas said. “But we won, and no matter what, we finished with a win, we stayed together. We had some hugely different stops at the end. The free throw line was the equalizer for us. We got it done,” Thomas said.

Connecticut center Jonquel Jones, who had a double-double in Wednesday’s game (14 points, 13 rebounds), didn’t mince words when it came to the lack of effort in the final quarter.

“It was just us fouling too much. We put them on the free-throw line really early. I think they were in the bonus around the six-minute mark. We just have to play straight up defense without giving up too much leverage in terms of being able to shoot free throws early in the quarter,” Jones said.

Thomas’s reference to the free throw line couldn’t have been truer for Washington. In an equally ineffective off-day for both teams shooting wise (both teams shot under 40 percent from the field), the Mystics made their presence known from the charity stripe, making 23 of 26 from the line. Connecticut, on the other hand, shot 59 percent from three-point range, but only made six of 11 free throws.

Thomas (11 points, nine rebounds) was one of three Mystics to score in double figures, along with Delle Donne (13 points, 12 rebounds) and Hill (18 points, eight assists). Shekinna Stricklen led the way for Connecticut, scoring 20 points on 6-of-9 three-point shooting. Jones and Lynetta Kizer (12 points, 8 rebounds) were the other leading contributors for the Sun, who have lost back-to-back games.