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Mystics bounce back from ‘ugly loss’ with a dominant win over Liberty

Elena Delle Donne led the Mystics with 22 points and 10 rebounds against the Liberty. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

From the time Elena Delle Donne debuted in the second game of this WNBA season, the Washington Mystics have run teams off the court both at home and away with their potent offense and sharp defending. But they entered Sunday’s game against the New York Liberty needing to rediscover their edge after they looked complacent in a loss Friday against the Chicago Sky that followed a long layoff.

“You know, you take a couple days off, you might get this slide,” Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said before Friday’s loss. “I don’t want a slide.”

Washington regained its focus Sunday and kept one bad slip from turning into a free fall with a 101-72 win over the Liberty at Entertainment and Sports Arena. There is a large gap between Chicago (17-11), which clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2016 last week, and the struggling Liberty (9-19), which occupies second-to-last place in the league’s standings, but Sunday’s win was critical for a couple of reasons nonetheless.

First, the Mystics simply could not afford a losing streak with six games left in the regular season. Washington (21-8) entered Sunday tied for first place with Connecticut and moved a game ahead when the Sun (20-9) lost to the Los Angeles Sparks, but the Sun owns the series tiebreaker. Second, wins such as Sunday’s are crucial tuneups as the playoffs near — New York is a physical team, their matchups are chippy, and calls don’t always go the Mystics’ way.

“We want that No. 1 seed. We have to kind of win out now because Connecticut has our tiebreaker, so it’s on everyone’s mind,” forward Aerial Powers said. “As you can see today, we kind of played with that aggressiveness. … In Chicago, our aggressive level wasn’t as high as usual. So we definitely wanted to come in today and push some people around, get our little growl back before [our next game] Tuesday. It’s going to be really important because come playoffs, you’re maybe not getting those easy calls you would get. You have to really fight for every possession.”

On Tuesday, the Mystics host the fourth-place Sparks (18-10), which promises to be a more demanding matchup.

Washington will still be without starting guard Kristi Toliver. The Maryland graduate missed her sixth straight game Sunday with a deep bone bruise in her right knee — she wore a bulky, custom brace over the leg of her pantsuit — and Thibault said she may not return before the playoffs begin in September.

“It sucks. I’m not going to lie,” Delle Donne said. “I hate not having Panda on the court. Especially that Chicago game — it would’ve been different if Kristi was out there. But we’re using it as a learning tool right now. We’re trying to just be patient, learn and not do too much and just play our roles. Obviously, we can’t wait for her to get back, but the most important thing is that she’s healthy and feeling good for the playoffs. You can tell it’s absolutely killing her to be sitting like this.”

The Mystics don’t just miss Toliver’s ballhandling and offense when she is out; they miss their coach on the court. Delle Donne describes her as a steadying force, and on Friday in Chicago — not solely because of Toliver, though her absence played a role — they were off on defense.

Thibault had the team come in early Sunday to watch film and walk through some tweaks he had for its defense, the quality of which is crucial to its free-flowing offense.

The team’s extra effort paid off at the start. The Mystics zipped out to a 31-14 lead in the first quarter but lost Powers when she got hit in the left eye. The forward had six points and led the team with six rebounds in the opening period; Washington missed her when she sat for much of the second quarter and the team got out of its offensive flow. The Mystics led 47-31 at halftime, but they still weren’t playing to their potential.

Delle Donne got them on the right path with an 11-point third quarter, and Powers chipped in eight points in the period as well. Delle Donne led the team with 22 points and 10 rebounds in just 24 minutes, and Powers finished with 14 points. Tianna Hawkins had 15 points off the bench, and Emma Meesseman had 14.

Kia Nurse had 24 points to lead New York, and Tina Charles had 16.

“I was super pleased with the way we bounced back, especially [after] a tough, ugly loss against Chicago. It can be hard to get back on track right away,” Delle Donne said. “New York is a dangerous team. They still have great players, they’re super physical, so I thought this was going to be a tough challenge. But we were able to step up to it and be ready.”

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