Brittney Griner’s size-17 shoes marched toward the Washington Mystics logo at center court, and cellphone cameras documented how her 6-foot-8 frame cast a shadow on the floor moments before tipoff Thursday night.
Once the ball went in the air, though, there were no powerful dunks and the Mystics hardly seemed bothered by the WNBA’s newest star patrolling the paint in Washington for the first time. But they won’t be able to forget the final minute of regulation.
Buoyed by the talents of guard Diana Taurasi and eight clutch free throws from forward DeWanna Bonner, the Phoenix Mercury dealt Washington its fourth straight loss, escaping with a 101-97 victory at Verizon Center. But the game-ending sequence featured plenty of controversy.
Guard Matee Ajavon appeared to emerge as the night’s unlikely hero, nailing a three-pointer on the run as she was being fouled with 4.5 seconds left. The potential four-point play would have given Washington a one-point lead.
After a conference near midcourt, however, officials determined the foul occurred before Ajavon attempted her shot. Ajavon (17 points) was instead awarded two free throws, and the Mystics couldn’t gather the rebound after she intentially missed her second attempt.
During his postgame news conference, Washington Coach Mike Thibault noted an official “put their hand up for a shot attempt and I didn’t hear a whistle until then.” By rule, WNBA officials are not allowed to use instant replay to change a foul call.
“I was going into my shot and I got fouled. I thought it was good,” Ajavon said. “One shot doesn’t determine a game, [but] obviously if I made it, it probably would have.”
The Mystics (4-5) took a double-digit lead over Phoenix with a 12-0 first-quarter run, and appeared unfazed by Griner early on. Forward Crystal Langhorne did much of her damage in the paint and finished with a game-high 27 points, including 17 before halftime, on 12 of 13 shooting. Forward Monique Currie chipped in 17 points as Washington shot a season-best 46.8 percent from the floor.
Griner, limited to just 26 minutes by Coach Corey Gaines due to a lingering knee injury, was one of six Mercury players to finish in double figures, scored 11 points to go along with seven rebounds, three assists and two blocks and Phoenix (6-4) hit 53.7 percent of its shots. Taurasi led the charge with 26 points and Bonner added 22, including 13 in the fourth quarter.
After the Mercury regained the lead early in the fourth quarter, point guard Ivory Latta (season-high nine assists) gave the Mystics an 89-88 edge with 2 minutes 14 seconds remaining on a three pointer as the shot clock was about to expire. But Taurasi responded one minute later with a difficult fadeaway jumper from the baseline to tie the score again.
Washington’s bad luck then began as Latta missed a layin and two open jumpers in a span of 29 seconds. With her team down by four, Ajavon connected on a three-pointer that did count with just under 12 seconds to go.
But the game’s frantic finish only made the next 24 hours — Washington travels to Atlanta for a game Friday night — that much harder to swallow.
“I feel I lost that for us,” Latta said. “No matter what, I’m not gonna get any sleep tonight.”