The Washington Mystics had surrendered all of a 16-point lead to the Seattle Storm on Thursday night at Key Arena when in the final minute of overtime, Ivory Latta secured a pass from Tayler Hill near the right corner behind the three-point arc.
With three seconds left on the shot clock, the Mystics’ diminutive point guard momentarily stared down defender Sue Bird. Then in the next instant, the ball was out of Latta’s hands and headed toward the basket with Washington nursing a one-point lead.
As the shot swished through with 44 seconds to play to help secure an 84-82 win, Latta, an emotional player by nature, hollered in celebration. The longest-tenured member of the Mystics hardly could have scripted a more fitting way to punctuate her season debut following a month of rehab on her surgically repaired right knee.
“I was so nervous,” Latta said of the moment when she first stepped onto the court. “Then when I got out there and touched the ball, everything went away. I have to give thanks to my teammates. They kept telling me I could do it and that they believed in me and to just go out there, play my game and have fun. They gave me all the energy I needed.”
Latta did the same in return, finishing with 16 points and infusing exuberance that had been in short supply during the Mystics’ opening stretch in which they dropped three straight games at Verizon Center. The low point was a 97-67 loss to the Los Angeles Sparks on May 20, when the Mystics committed a season-high 21 turnovers and lacked urgency throughout in chasing down rebounds and loose balls.
An overtime triumph against the Connecticut Sun on Saturday to start this three-game road trip brought much needed confidence heading into Seattle, where the Mystics had not won since 2005. Latta did not make the trip to Connecticut, thus avoiding the risky proposition of coming back too soon and perhaps aggravating her knee.
Her first practice this season came on Monday afternoon, and she accompanied the team on the flight to the Pacific Northwest. Washington concludes its road trip on Sunday against the Phoenix Mercury at Talking Stick Resort Arena.
“I felt like she was going to have a good shooting night because for two straight days [during practice], she made everything,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said. “She had a bounce to her, so I thought it was a situation where she could give us a jump-start off the bench which we haven’t had offensively. That was huge for us.”
Latta has become among the most productive reserves in the WNBA, leading the Mystics in scoring last season after Thibault made the switch to Natasha Cloud as the starting point guard. Cloud isn’t on the road trip as she continues to deal with excruciating discomfort from kidney stones diagnosed after an 87-77 loss to the Dallas Wings on May 18.
Cloud’s ailment in addition to Tierra Ruffin-Pratt’s badly sprained right ankle during training camp in part compelled Thibault to use three different starting lineups over the first four games. Ruffin-Pratt, normally a starter at small forward, came back on Friday well ahead of schedule and since has been in the point guard rotation with Cloud unavailable.
Ruffin-Pratt had a game-high six assists against the Storm, which got a season-high 25 points from No. 1 overall draft pick Breanna Stewart. The heralded forward led the University of Connecticut to an unprecedented four consecutive national championships and became the first four-time winner of most outstanding player in the Final Four.
Hill and Bria Hartley have started in the back court the past three games, with each setting a career high in assists during that time. Hill had 18 points with five rebounds against the Storm and is 10th in the league in scoring at 18 points per game.
“It’s a big difference with Ivory,” Hill said. “She’s our veteran point guard and our captain. It’s good to be back on the floor with her because she’s making big plays. Even if she’s not making shots, she’s out there directing us.”