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With Natasha Cloud leading the ‘Elite Eight,’ shorthanded Mystics win again

What to know from Washington’s 78-66 victory over the Lynx on Sunday night in Minneapolis

Mystics Coach Mike Thibault, pictured in Friday's win over Indiana, saw his team score another win Sunday. (Terrance Williams/AP)

MINNEAPOLIS — Natasha Cloud sent the tweet Feb. 24, putting the WNBA on notice: “Yall not going under on me this year. That’s the tweet.”

The seventh-year guard has been on a mission to tell anyone who’s listening that she’s a shooter in 2022. And in her first two games, she backed up those words. Cloud scored 19 points to go with six assists and six rebounds while leading the Washington Mystics to a 78-66 victory over the Minnesota Lynx on Sunday night.

“I’m a shooter — period,” Cloud said with a smirk. “[It was] just my teammates finding me in successful positions, kicking the ball out. I thought we did a really good job of controlling the pace, coming out, punching them in the mouth first. And that was our mission to get out. We didn’t want them to have the energy on their home opener.”

Cloud went scorched earth in the first half with all 19 of her points, shooting 4 for 6 from behind the arc for the Mystics (2-0). She drove for layups, hit midrange pull-up jumpers and buried wide-open three-pointers. The 30-year-old has never averaged more than nine points in a season, but she posted 17 in Friday’s season-opening win and topped that Sunday. At one point, Cloud had 19 points and the Lynx had 21.

We just wanted to keep the pace fast,” Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said. “And if she could turn the corner and create, teams are going to find out she can shoot. The scouting report for her was let her shoot threes, and she’s making them. ... Tash has worked on her game. It’s paid off.”

Vocal leadership always has been part of Cloud’s skill set, but she was particularly outspoken during training camp and has carried that into the season. On Sunday, she could be heard getting her teammates ready in the hallway near the entrance to the court, huddling them up and emphasizing the need for everyone to contribute with just eight players available.

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That’s exactly what happened. Ariel Atkins posted 20 points, four rebounds and five assists. Myisha Hines-Allen added 11 points, eight rebounds and three assists. Rookie Shakira Austin had her first double-double in her first start with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough added 10 points and five rebounds.

Jessica Shepard paced Minnesota (0-2) with 16 points and 12 rebounds. The Lynx made a furious comeback attempt in the fourth quarter as the Mystics fatigued and lost some of the crisp ball movement that helped them build a 27-point lead. But Atkins made some big plays down the stretch to close out the victory.

“We needed to get that win,” she said. “I think, more than anything, we’ve been getting better little by little, every day. ... [Sunday’s victory] showed us what we’re capable of.”

Here’s what else to know about the Mystics’ win:

Second to none

The outcome was decided in the second quarter, when the Mystics outscored the Lynx 23-4 to take a 47-23 halftime lead. The Lynx were awful offensively in the second, shooting 7.1 percent and missing all four of their three-point attempts.

Austin did a masterful job battling seven-time all-star Sylvia Fowles, refusing to give an inch to the 36-year-old in her final season. At one point, she forced the Lynx into a three-second violation as Fowles fought with elbows high, trying to get post position that Austin refused to give up. Fowles finished with 13 points and eight rebounds; she surpassed 6,000 points to move into 10th all-time in WNBA scoring.

You’re talking about playing against a Hall of Fame center,” Thibault said, “and in many ways [matching] her as far as the statistical part. But also it kept us from having to help as much in the paint because she was active. She just played her butt off.”

“This is why we drafted Shakira,” Cloud said. “We knew she could come in and have an immediate impact on our organization.”

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‘Elite Eight’

The Mystics were calling themselves the “Elite Eight” on Sunday with Elena Delle Donne, Alysha Clark (foot) and Tianna Hawkins (personal) back in Washington. Delle Donne had a scheduled day off; the Mystics will mix those in during the season to keep her fresh and not overwork her surgically repaired back. Clark has yet to make her season debut after missing all of 2021, and Hawkins had a death in the family.

“We’re all we got. We’re all we need,” Cloud told her teammates before the game. “... The ‘Elite Eight’ and we’re putting the W on notice — we’re a good [expletive] team regardless of who we have on the floor.”

That left rookies Austin, Rui Machida and Katie Benzan and recently signed Stephanie Jones to carry increased loads. Austin started for Delle Donne, and the other three were the only bench players available.

“They just told me it was going to be a big load, but I was prepared for it,” Austin said. “I’ve guarded some great players in college, so I just took that mind-set and just applied it to now.”

Machida showed off some of the court vision she displayed while leading Japan to the silver medal at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics. She found Cloud for multiple open three-pointers, and she finished with three assists and four rebounds.

Benzan made her WNBA debut, playing two minutes with an assist.

Roster updates

The Mystics were granted another hardship roster spot with Kennedy Burke still not with the team. They brought back Benzan, a former Maryland guard who traveled with the team in anticipation of clearing waivers at 5 p.m. Sunday.

The Mystics will be shorthanded for several weeks, but Thibault provided an update Sunday. He hopes that Clark will be ready Friday vs. Dallas. (Washington’s next game is Tuesday vs. Las Vegas.) Burke, who has been playing in Spain, is scheduled to arrive in Washington on May 16 and is slated to travel to a game at Dallas the next day. Elizabeth Williams remains out until her Turkish team wraps up its postseason.