The Smith Center was Mystics territory Thursday night, and in Mystics territory there is just one rule – fans do not sit until Washington scores its first point.
In round two of the WNBA playoffs, the crowd only had to stand for 28 seconds before a driving finger roll layup by guard Kristi Toliver put the Mystics on the board for the first time against the No. 6 seed LA Sparks.
Both teams went back and forth to open the first quarter, but the No. 3 seed Mystics cracked open a 15–5 run to overcome an 8–2 deficit and never looked back, winning their elimination playoff game 96–64.
“There are three things we think we need to win playoff games and that’s turnovers, free throw difference and rebounding, and we won all of those tonight besides shooting the ball well,” general manager and head coach Mike Thibault said.
Six Mystics saw double-digit scoring and the team dished out 28 assists on the night and shot 56.9 percent from the field. Washington sank nine three-point shots on the night and grabbed 36 boards. They went a perfect 13-for-13 from the charity stripe and committed just nine turnovers.
“Top to bottom, everybody gave a great effort and that’s the key to us winning,” Toliver said.
Renovations to the Capital One Arena has the team playing at the Smith Center, a 5,000-seat venue just a quarter of the size of its home arena. Fans from all over the DMV area packed the Colonials’ home court, and the close, intimate setting was even felt by players on the floor.
“We loved it, it was a packed house,” Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne said. “That’s what playoff atmosphere feels like, so to have that many people there and for them to feel like they’re on top of us, it kind of gives us that advantage that we’re looking for.”
The Mystics were slow out of the gate in the first quarter and trailed by six after a turnover by guard Natasha Cloud gave Sparks’ forward Alana Beard an open layup.
But the momentum shifted in favor of the Mystics with 5:11 left in the quarter when forward Ariel Atkins drove to the hoop and put up an easy layup to give Washington its lead back 12–11. A layup by Parker put the Mystics down by one again, but Atkins put up a three-point shot to give the Mystics a 15–13 lead and an advantage they would not relinquish for the rest of the game.
Washington continued to add to its lead in the second quarter, outscoring the Sparks 23–13. The Mystics picked up four three-point shots and held the Sparks to 6-of-18 shooting from the field to head into the halftime break up 50–29.
For the Sparks, two-time Olympic gold medalist center Candace Parker led the squad with 16 points and eight rebounds. Guard Odyssey Sims followed with nine points and five boards, but the team was held to 34.3 percent shooting on the night and went 6-for-22 from beyond the arc.
“We did it to ourselves,” Parker said. “We weren’t able to fix everything in this last game to get back to the semis but I’m not obviously done with this. There’s a lot we can learn from this.”
Delle Donne led the Mystics with 19 points and 12 rebounds, followed by center LaToya Sanders with 14 points, four assists and seven boards.
“I think another reason why we played the way we did is we didn’t want to go home,” Donne said. “We truly enjoy hanging out with one another and traveling and we want a whole other month to spend time together.”
The final two frames were the highest-scoring for the Sparks. The team picked up five of its six three-point buckets in the back half of the game, but the Mystics’ 61.3 percent second-half shooting clip continued to grow Washington’s lead.
The Mystics return to action in a best-of-five series against the No. 2 seed Atlanta Dream in the semifinals. Game one for the Mystics starts on the road Sunday at 3 p.m. in Atlanta.