Sunday’s game against the Chicago Sky was the most pivotal of the entire season for the Washington Mystics.
With Washington clinging to a playoff spot, a win against Chicago would put them in a much more comfortable spot heading into the final month of the regular season. With most of the starters out of the lineup for the past month, the goal has been to simply survive.
Washington did more than just that. Getting a career-high 30 points from Brittney Sykes and another 16 from Queen Egbo off the bench, the Mystics rolled to an 83-76 win, improving their overall record to 3-0 against the Sky. The win now puts Washington two games ahead of the eighth-seeded Sky and the ninth-seeded Sparks, who are both battling for a playoff spot.
Sykes helps Mystics overcome third-quarter woes
Washington only held a one-point lead at the half but outscored Chicago 21-16 in the third. The Mystics have struggled mightily in the second half of games this season, posting a combined -9.3 net rating in third quarters. They responded in a big way against Chicago, tallying a +25.0 net rating in the third quarter and a +15.4 net rating in the second half.
Brittney Sykes had 13 of her 30 points in the third, setting the tone for the team in the second half. After the game, she shared her mindset heading into the second half:
I think with our history of third quarters, I have made a decision to intentionally come out aggressive. Not necessarily force anything, but keeping that pedal to the medal because I know if I don’t have anything there’s still probably something that could come out of it if it’s not me shooting the ball.
Austin’s surprise return also boosts Washington
The biggest surprise of the night was Shakira Austin’s return to the lineup. Austin has been out with a left hip strain since June 25 and, although she only played 13 minutes, Austin’s impact was felt, with four points, four rebounds, two assists and this monstrous block on Marina Mabrey in the second quarter.
After the game, Austin spoke about her return to the floor, saying, “I try not to get too excited. Probably had a lot more nerves than normal going into the game. I was feeling a little anxious but once the crowd started yelling for me—they really loved it and I felt the love. I felt like it was time for me to be back out.”
She admitted she’s not fully healthy and might not be this season, but she remains optimistic, sharing, “I still have some struggles. It’s tough, I’m not sure when, how many games it’ll take, or what will happen this season as far as getting back to being 100 percent confident. Just even the progress I had in the game felt good.”
DC inks Atkins to extension before a busy offseason
In other news, the Mystics announced on Tuesday that they signed Ariel Atkins to a two-year extension worth $200,000 a season. The deal is fully-protected and, most importantly, it is a signal that the team is looking to commit to this core unit for longer. The two-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist is now signed through 2025. Atkins was drafted by the Mystics back in 2018 and was a starter on the 2019 championship team.
Atkins shared what the deal means to her:
It was really about what I believe that we can do here and wanting to be a part of something that I felt like I built and helping it get back to championship status—getting back to the Finals, getting back to winning—and that’s something that I believe we can still do here… When you’re in a place that you’re wanted and you can help build and you can help grow, it’s what I look for.
I had a chance to catch up with Coach Thibault and Ariel Atkins at yesterday’s practice.— Jasmine B. (@jazzvangogh) August 17, 2023
Mini : pic.twitter.com/dMBNhxmFK0
This is a big offseason for the Mystics. In addition to two-time MVP Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, Tianna Hawkins and Kristi Toliver are all set to enter free agency this year. With Delle Donne being the Mystics’ highest paid player at just over $234,000 for this season, the Mystics will have a long summer of negotiating if they want to retain their core.
On the bright side for Washington, the league’s collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in 2027, with the broadcast deal with ESPN first expiring in 2025. A new TV deal will mean more money for the league, and for the Mystics to allocate towards player salaries. Atkins’ contract could look very friendly a few years from now.
Ultimately, the Mystics are just glad to have their players all back and healthy. Atkins and Delle Donne were both full participants in practice on Wednesday and both traveled to Indy, according to the team.
They face off against the Fever on Friday night at 7 p.m. ET (ION).