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Defending WNBA champ Sky is too much for Mystics

Mystics Coach Mike Thibault ran out of answers Friday night in Chicago, where his team fell to the defending WNBA champs, 93-83. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

CHICAGO — At some point, the gantlet through the WNBA’s top teams was bound to catch up with the Washington Mystics, who had feasted of late on top-shelf competition in the regular season’s stretch run.

But after stringing together a collection of impressive victories over two of the league’s top four teams while trying to chase down a top postseason seed, the Mystics ran into buzz saw Friday night in the form of the defending champion Chicago Sky, which overwhelmed Washington, 93-83, at Wintrust Arena in a game that wasn’t nearly as close as the final score suggested.

“It felt like we were flat,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said. “We did not have a great practice [Thursday], and we played like we practiced. It’s probably the first bad [game] I would say we’ve had in a long while where we just couldn’t generate the energy.”

The Mystics — playing without leading scorer Elena Delle Donne, who was held out to rest for the final three regular season games — were unable to maintain the success they had found in victories earlier this week over the Seattle Storm and Las Vegas Aces.

Instead, Washington (20-13) — led by Myisha Hines-Allen, who finished with 21 points, and Shakira Austin, who had 17 — was left gassed chasing after the fast-paced Sky (24-8).

The reigning champion started fast, taking a 29-15 lead after one quarter. Thibault, helpless to do anything but watch his team unable to keep pace, spent much of the second half near the end of the Washington bench, hands in pockets, mostly speechless with what he saw play out in front of him.

While Chicago maintained its comfortable cushion with an array of perimeter shooting, including nine three-pointers in 22 attempts, the Mystics were unable to find any range and finished the loss 8 for 24 from beyond the arc.

The Mystics were unable to slow down the league-leading Sky, which built a 23-point lead by the closing moments of the first half. Chicago used a 14-2 run to break the game open as the Mystics struggled to find any offensive rhythm while the Sky produced points at a breakneck speed.

The Mystics were never able to cut the Sky lead under double digits in the second half. The margin was more than 20 points for much of that time.

“Give Chicago credit: They came in ready to go, they knocked down big threes, the ball moved, they had great pace to everything they did tonight, and they looked — for a half, at least — like a way better team,” Thibault said.

Kahleah Copper paced Chicago with 19 points to go along with 18 from Allie Quigley and 11 from Azura Stevens and Rebekah Gardner. Courtney Vandersloot and Emma Meesseman, the 2019 WNBA Finals MVP with the Mystics, rounded out the balanced Sky scoring attack with 10 points apiece.

The Mystics, who entered Friday night’s game tied for the No. 4 seed with Seattle, will need to bounce back in quick order if they hope to keep pace with the Storm. Washington hosts the Los Angeles Sparks on Sunday at Entertainment and Sports Arena before finishing with back-to-back games against the Indiana Fever, which has five victories and sits at the bottom of the WNBA standings.

The Storm holds the regular season tiebreaker over the Mystics, whose loss against Chicago was only their second in seven games. But after suffering their first double-digit loss since June 23, when the Mystics dropped an 85-71 loss to the Storm, Thibault will attempt to get his team to regroup with still more work to be done before the playoffs arrive.

“I told [the team] that our preparation for Sunday starts right this minute,” Thibault said. “... Mentally, they have to get themselves back into the scouting report and get your sleep and get rest for two nights and try to get ourselves ready to go.”

What kind of bounce-back effort he gets from the Mystics now that the toughest stretch of the schedule is out of the way may determine how much momentum Washington can carry into the postseason.

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

Players focus on Griner

Mystics players said after Friday’s game that they would not speak about the loss but instead wanted to devote their time to speak about the 9½-year sentence handed down in Russia to Phoenix Mercury star Brittney Griner.

Said forward Alysha Clark: “Obviously, the decision that happened [Thursday] weighs very heavily on the hearts of all of us as [Griner’s] sisters in this league, as friends ... We’re going to continue to call on President Biden to continue to do whatever he can to get her and Paul [Whelan] home and all of the other wrongfully detained Americans over there. We miss her, and there’s not even any words about how to describe this.

“Sports should be a safe space, and no player should be used as a political pawn, and so we’re going to continue to lift her up, and we’re going to continue to speak on her behalf, and we’re going to continue to have hope in the administration and that they’re going to get her home swiftly and that they’re going to get her home safely.”