The WNBA playoffs are just around the corner and the energy inside Capital One Arena on Friday night proved as much.
The Washington Mystics (16-12) couldn’t overcome a horrible shooting performance, however, losing at home 89-79 to the Phoenix Mercury (15-13) in the rubber match of their season series. Coming into the game, Mystics head coach Mike Thibault blatantly voiced how important a win against a playoff-hopeful Mercury team would be, especially after getting trounced by the Los Angeles Sparks at home Wednesday night.
“Phoenix is chasing us, and it’s the tiebreaker. There is a lot at stake,” Thibault told the team’s media staff ahead of the pivotal game. Phoenix sat just two games behind Washington for the fourth position in the league standings, but have now closed the gap and own an advantage in any tie-breaker scenarios.
Friday’s matchup featured 16 lead changes, eight ties and a stark shooting disparity that turned out to be the deciding factor.
Washington, led by point guard Kristi Toliver’s 21 points (0-9 3pt FG), shot below 40 percent from the field and were an abysmal 17 percent from deep on 4-of-23 shooting. Phoenix, led by wing Diana Taurasi’s game-high 25 points, shot 55 percent from the field and 44 percent from behind the arc.
Despite the shooting woes, Washington still had a chance to sneak away with a win because they got to the free throw line 29 times and shot nearly 80 percent. But a key stretch late in the game quelled any hopes of an unlikely victory. After fighting back to tie the game at the end of the third period, a back-and-forth showdown in the fourth ground to a halt at the 3:23 mark.
Down 74-70, the Mystics came out of a timeout and Toliver ended the possession by throwing up an airball. Then, after a quick stop, Mystics forward Emma Meesseman missed badly to the left on the team’s next possession and compounded things by collecting her fifth foul seconds later on an and-1 that hiked the score to 76-70 after a missed free throw.
When she fouled out on the next defensive possession, her team looked up and found themselves down 79-72 with just under two minutes left in the game.
Phoenix center Brittney Griner didn’t play when the two last met on Aug. 6, because of knee and ankle injuries. Her return put a strain on the Mystics bigs and caused them to get in foul trouble early and often. Griner posted a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, but her biggest contribution was providing toughness down low.
Meesseman was effective in the first quarter, scoring all seven of her points, grabbing 6 rebounds and dishing out crazy assists.
— Washington Mystics (@WashMystics) August 18, 2017
But battling with the Griner and the rest of the Mercury frontcourt resulted in early fouls and disrupted her rhythm by taking her off the court.
With the loss, the Mystics still hold a slim grip on a first-round bye awarded to the league’s top-four teams. But first, they need to win one more game to clinch a playoff spot.
They have six more games left on their regular season schedule and the next two are tough road tests against the Indiana Fever and the New York Liberty.