Shortly after 5 a.m. Saturday, the Washington Mystics began making their way to their gate at Bradley International Airport outside Hartford, Conn., to catch a flight back to the District. Players had gotten virtually no sleep in the hours before, but there was plenty of relief following a victory against the Connecticut Sun that secured a second straight Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Still the Mystics had one more game left in the regular season Saturday night, and beating the New York Liberty would have kept them in the mix for home-court advantage in the first round. Washington, however, was unable to shake free from the fog of an emotionally and physically draining game less than 24 hours earlier and the subsequent travel fatigue in falling to the Liberty, 73-61, at Verizon Center.
The Mystics (16-18) now must wait until Sunday night to find out which opponent they draw in the conference semifinals. Washington will be either the No. 3 or 4 seed in a series that will begin either Thursday or Friday, and it will face either the top-seeded Atlanta Dream or the Indiana Fever, which beat the Chicago Sky on Saturday night to move into the No. 2 seed with one game to play.
Washington is 1-3 this season against the Dream, which ousted the Mystics from last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals in three games. The Mystics and Fever split this year’s four-game regular season series.
“Had a very emotional game last night, and we played really hard to get in, and we get up at 4:15, and you take a flight back and try to get some sleep and play,” Coach Mike Thibault said. “We tried to come out in the second half and see how many stops in a row we could get, and we started the half stopping them, but we couldn’t make a shot at the other end.”
This one was all but settled by halftime, when New York closed on a 10-2 run for a 45-29 lead. The Mystics, meanwhile, managed one field goal over the final 4 minutes 34 seconds of the second quarter and committed 11 first-half turnovers. The Liberty (14-19) had zero.
The lead reached 20 points twice in the third quarter, and Washington never got the margin to fewer than 11 the rest of the way. That came when point guard Ivory Latta made a three-pointer with 6:07 left in regulation, but New York quickly bumped its advantage back to 17 on jumpers by Tina Charles, Plenette Pierson and Cappie Pondexter.
“You work so hard the night before not to go into overtime and then finally clinch, sometimes it does play in a back-to-back,” Latta said. “Not going to make that an excuse. This game is behind us. Clean slate, zero-zero. Going into the playoffs we’ve got to be focused.”
Latta finished with a team-high 15 points and was one of only two starters who shot 50 percent or better, but the Mystics’ lone representative in this year’s All-Star Game matched her season high with five turnovers. Reserve forward Tianna Hawkins (11 points) was the only other Washington player to reach double figures in the club’s most lopsided loss since 90-78 on July 15 to the Phoenix Mercury, which owns the best record in the WNBA.
The Mystics failed to reach .500 after Thibault, the reigning WNBA coach of the year who has won the award three times, directed the Mystics to the playoffs with 17 wins last year. In the previous two seasons, Washington combined to win 11 games.