- The Washington Times
Thursday, August 9, 2018

Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault glanced at a print-out of the expanded box score Thursday and said, “Given our schedule and the travel, I wouldn’t have predicted that.”

After clinching a playoff berth by beating the Phoenix Mercury late Tuesday night, the Mystics took a red-eye back east and did not start studying for the best team in the WNBA until the morning of the game.

Somehow, that didn’t slow the Mystics down. They hosted the Seattle Storm at Capital One Arena and ran away with a 100-77 win over the league leaders Thursday morning.

By handing the Storm their most lopsided loss of the season and snapping their five-game winning streak, the Mystics extended their own streak to five wins and improved their chances of securing a double-bye in the postseason.

The Mystics are jockeying for a top seed with the WNBA Playoffs beginning in two weeks. Their long post-All-Star Break road trip and the recent distraction surrounding a forfeited game have not stopped them from hanging with elite competition.

“We were ready to play from the start,” Thibault said. “As tired as we were, I thought that we summoned up great energy to start the game. We kind of put them on their heels a little bit.”

Elena Delle Donne led with 30 points and LaToya Sanders was 6-for-6 from the floor on the way to a 17-point, 12-rebound double-double.

After taking a recovery day Wednesday, Thursday morning was “the first we talked about” Seattle, Delle Donne said.

“We came in early, watched a lot of film,” the star forward said. “We couldn’t walk through stuff just because it was such an early game. The focus of this team’s been great, just knowing the importance of each and every game we have ahead.”

This quick turnaround came in the aftermath of the Las Vegas Aces’ controversial decision not to show for a Friday night game in the District, citing a lack of rest due to extremely delayed travel. They later had to forfeit the game.

Washington (19-11) has not lost since July 24, a stretch that includes road wins over second-place Atlanta and playoff contenders Dallas and Phoenix. With four regular season games left to play, the No. 1 overall seed is not out of reach. The top two playoff seeds receive byes into the league semifinals.

Delle Donne said the team talks about the goal of securing a double-bye “a lot.”

“We can contend for a championship,” Sanders added. “We can get one of the top two seeds and get the double-bye. We’re really focused on ourselves, because that’s our biggest opponent is ourselves sometimes, when we’re not clicking offensively and defensively.”

Sanders’ performance elicited praise from her coach, who called her both one of the league’s most improved players and “as good as any forward in the league for the last six or seven weeks.”

“I just try to do anything that my team needs, whether it’s defense, rebounding,” Sanders said. “I know this year I needed to score a little bit more to try to help the team, so I’ve been trying to focus on that.

The Mystics’ second straight 100-point outing — in which they shot a season-high 56.7 percent — “might have been” the team’s most complete game offensively, Thibault said.

“But I don’t know, we just had two great road wins so it’s hard to compare,” Thibault said.

With a 12-11 Mystics advantage early, Delle Donne and Sanders drew fouls on consecutive baskets. The 3-point plays helped build on the lead, as did four “standard” 3-pointers the team sank in the first quarter. While the Storm struggled to get shots to fall, Washington went on a 12-2 run to lead 31-18 after one.

Seattle created some plays in the paint to start to reassert themselves, but Monique Currie responded by sinking two 3-pointers on consecutive possessions. Washington forced a turnover and Delle Donne scored over MVP candidate Breanna Stewart to push the lead to 45-25. The Mystics would maintain that clip, until Sue Bird created some shots for herself and Jewell Loyd late in the half to bring the Storm closer.

Coming out of the locker room with a 57-40 lead, Delle Donne hit two quick 3-pointers on the way to a 14-point third quarter. She wrested control of the game despite Seattle’s best efforts, scoring from the baseline, the paint and the arc. After the Storm scored the first seven points of the fourth quarter, Delle Donne helped put it away, reaching the 30-point mark for the second straight game.

Though fully healthy, the Mystics stuck to a nine-player rotation for most of the game, only playing Krystal Thomas and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough in the final five minutes. It was part of Thibault’s strategy to expand his starters’ minutes and keep his depth players rested.

“I told the bench, it’s going to be different every night who plays,” Thibault said. “But as you get toward that playoff run, you have to do that sometimes.”

Natasha Cloud finished with 14 points and eight assists and rookie Ariel Atkins added 12 points for Washington.

The Mystics play two of their last four games at home. In particular, a win on Aug. 17 over the Los Angeles Sparks (18-11 going into Thursday night’s game) would go a long way toward pushing the Mystics into the league’s top two.

When the playoffs arrive, the Mystics will play their home games at the Charles E. Smith Center on the campus of George Washington University, as renovations continue inside Capital One Arena.

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