By Natalie White
Washington, DC -- After a tumultuous week in the nation, both, Washington and Phoenix players, stood together with linked arms, symbolizing unity in the nation’s capital, during the National Anthem.
The visiting Phoenix Mercury entered the game at 14-13 on the season, looking to improve their record and potentially snag a better spot in the playoffs. The Washington Mystics, 16-11 overall, were sitting at fifth in the league – just one spot ahead of tonight’s opponent. With a win tonight, the Mystics would have clinched a playoff berth.
Unfortunately, they will have to wait to clinch a spot in the playoffs, after dropping a second game at home, losing to the Mercury, 89-79.
“I thought today was an example of what we could be,” shared Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi. “That is good for us to be able to see that and build confidence off that going into the stretch run where you want to play your best and be injury free. So hopefully this is going in the right direction for us."
With Brittney Griner returning back for her second game since her injury, the Mystics’ head coach Mike Thibault was hopeful in his team’s ability to defend her through a persistent double-team -- that gameplan didn’t seem to be working.
“It was great to have the big girl back,” said Phoenix’s head coach Sandy Brondello on having Griner back in the rotation. “She gives us another dimension at both end of the courts for us."
Immediately once the game started, Griner scored the first basket regardless of who was guarding her. Some possessions she drew a double team -- sometimes three Washington players gravitated toward her – yet she still put the ball in the hoop.
The Mercury continued to pound the ball inside to Griner, however, an aggressive Emma Meesseman responded with several Washington boards to keep the game close.
The Mystics earned their first lead with a deep three from rookie Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, but the double-teamed Griner left teammates open to regain the lead for the Mercury. Phoenix extended their lead to 17-13 with 2:48 remaining in the quarter, and Cayla George brought the lead to five with only 1:25 remaining.
Washington went on a tear, emphasized by a Natasha Cloud triple, to put the Mystics up 21-20 at the end of the first quarter. But, the second quarter was controlled by Phoenix.
Despite the Mercury dictating most of the second frame, the stanza was filled with some frustration for both teams. Each head coach earned a technical foul in the second, and both teams seemed to react with an extra boost of energy.
Kristi Toliver’s first basket came with just over two minutes remaining in the half, quickly followed by a steal and pass to Walker-Kimbrough to bring the Mystics within five. Nevertheless, the Mystics couldn’t make up for their unprecedented nine turnovers in the first half, and Phoenix capitalized by ending the half up, 42-35.
Second half play began as the Mystics continued to double-team Griner. Washington’s Tierra Ruffin-Pratt lit up the beginning of the quarter, scoring four points, and pulling down three rebounds to cut the Phoenix lead to four minutes into the half.
Toliver, on the other hand, struggled from behind the arc, but endured on defense to keep her team in the game. An emphatic Asia Taylor block gave Washington the ball and created a momentum shift for the Mystics. The teams continued to trade a one-point lead in the last few minutes of the third, but a Leilani Mitchell offensive foul allowed Natasha Cloud to score a quick left-handed layup to give the Mystics a three-point lead.
Cloud’s leadership ended in the culmination of the third quarter, as she slipped awkwardly and went down under the basket, writhing in pain with only 30 seconds remaining.
After being carried off the court by teammates, Cloud was eventually able to walk through the tunnel under her own power, withstanding what the Mystics are calling a “left hip injury.” Cloud did not return to the game. At the end of the third quarter, the game was tied at 56.
The fourth quarter began with Taurasi and Toliver trading threes that ignited both teams’ offenses. Meesseman found Thomas for a layup that provided Washington with a 68-67 lead early in the quarter.
As the period continued, the teams continued to trade leads. Phoenix finally extended their advantage to seven on a Camille Little layup, plus one. Little continued to grow the Mercury lead to nine, as Phoenix led 81-72 with 1:20 remaining in the game.
And while the Mystics fought valiantly, they couldn’t overcome the Mercury’s lead.
Washington’s hopes of clinching a playoff berth tonight were lost, despite bellicose attempts from the defense. Meesseman fouled out with two minutes remaining, and her team felt her absence. Phoenix maintained control and won the game, 89-79.
“Some shots didn't go in,” Meesseman expounded. “I think that is the main reason we lost today. If you play consistent defense and keep communicating that is going to help us a lot in getting a playoff spot and to play in the playoffs. We have to keep finding solutions until Elena [Delle Donne] gets back.”
Despite the loss, Coach Thibault knows his team is completely different with his All-Star on the court. He explained, “It’s one of those games like where I see some positive things because I can picture some things out there when we put Elena [Delle Donne] out there that made the game easier for Emma [Meesseman].
“She got double teamed every time she touched the ball and teams are doing that without Elena [Delle Donne] out there. That’s going to be harder for teams to do with our full complement.”
Washington will have a chance to snap their losing streak, as they face Indiana Sunday afternoon.