A back-and-forth contest between the Washington Mystics and the Atlanta Dream brought a booming crowd to the Smith Center Friday night.
But Atlanta got the edge over Washington, breaking the game open in the fourth quarter to win 81–76 and pull ahead in the WNBA semifinal playoff series 2–1.
Washington’s shooting remained inconsistent through the entire game, which head coach Mike Thibault said was the primary reason his team did not come away with a win. The Mystics finished the night shooting 36.1 percent from the field.
“Hard to win a game when you shoot 36 percent,” Thibault said. “They played better than us.”
Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne missed the game due to a left knee bone bruise. In the regular season, Delle Donne led the team with 20.7 points per game and 7.2 rebounds per game.
Thibault said the loss of Delle Donne caused other players like guard Kristi Toliver to be stifled more easily by Atlanta’s defense.
“You’re taking 20 points and 10 rebounds out of your lineup,” he said. “It’s like any great star in this league, your team is just never going to be the same without them.”
The loss of Delle Donne forced the Mystics to start with a lineup that was both unfamiliar and smaller than usual. Aerial Powers came off the bench for the squad as a power forward for the first time all season to fill a crucial role on the boards in Delle Donne’s absence.
Powers was a bright spot in a night that saw discouraging shooting numbers for the Mystics, dropping 18 points and grabbing eight rebounds. Powers said she was happy when she learned about her position change, because she knew it would give her a better opportunity to help her team.
“I realized that they needed some help rebounding, so I tried to make that my goal to get in there and rebound,” she said. “Elena’s out so whatever gaps there are to fill, I just try to do my best and fill them.”
The Mystics found themselves in trouble almost immediately from tip-off, with Dream forward Brittney Sykes drilling a three-point shot within 40 seconds. After three minutes, Atlanta had scored seven points before the Mystics had managed to get on the board.
Washington’s stagnant offense found life after forward Tianna Harkins put the Mystics on the scoreboard for the first time with 6:57 left in the first quarter. The team went on a 7–2 scoring run to tie the game at nine points a piece, but fast shots in transition allowed the Dream to pull ahead 19–13 to end the first quarter.
The second quarter saw a flurry of lead changes, with the teams going shot-for-shot on nearly every possession. Ten of the game’s 14 lead changes came in the second quarter.
A hard drive to the basket by guard Tiffany Hayes put the Dream on top 37–34 going into halftime, the largest lead of the second quarter.
To open the third quarter, Sykes swiped the ball from the Mystic offense for an easy fast-break layup, sending Atlanta on a 5–0 scoring run that would result in a 10-point lead, its biggest of the night.
Forward LaToya Sanders said she tried to keep her younger teammates as calm as possible in the moments where Atlanta gained the momentum.
“The game of basketball is a game of runs,” Sanders said. “There were some moments where Atlanta went on a 8–0 run or had some big plays and stuff like that, that kind of felt deflating.”
The game got away from the Mystics by the end of the fourth quarter, with the Dream outscoring them 25–22. A layup by guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt brought the score within five with seconds to play, but Atlanta outlasted Washington’s last-minute efforts.
The Mystics pushed to the final seconds, scoring a layup as the final buzzer sounded. Sanders said although the team’s execution was lacking, she was impressed by the energy the team maintained through all 40 minutes.
“You can’t say we didn’t leave it out on the court today, like we were all over the court flying, hustling – we gave it our all,” Sanders said.
The Mystics will try to keep their postseason run alive against the Dream Sunday. The game will be their third in the playoffs hosted at the Smith Center.