The Washington Mystics’ Elena Delle Donne, by Coach Mike Thibault’s recollection, didn’t miss a shot for roughly 20 minutes during pregame warmups for Sunday’s season opener against the Indiana Fever.
“I’m thinking, ‘Boy, that’s a pretty good rhythm,’ ” Thibault said. “And then we ran the first play for her, and that didn’t go in, and then she air-balled one. I just think she was pressing a little bit.”
Delle Donne admitted as much following an 82-75 victory at Capital One Arena in which the 2015 WNBA MVP went 5 for 18 from the field, including 1 for 5 from beyond the arc, for 13 points.
Still, the four-time all-star contributed in other meaningful ways. Take, for instance, Delle Donne’s game-high seven assists with just one turnover.
“I wish I could blame the ice being down for my cold shooting,” Delle Donne said, referring to the surface underneath the court awaiting Monday night’s Game 6 of the NHL’s Eastern Conference finals between the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning. “Just jitters, a little nervous, wanting to just show how great we are.”
Fortunately for Washington, which advanced to the semifinals of the WNBA playoffs last season for the first time in 15 years, Kristi Toliver was shooting the ball just fine, much to the delight of an announced crowd of 7,400 in Washington’s final opener at its present home. The Mystics next season are set to move into a newly constructed 4,200-seat arena in Southeast that also will serve as the Washington Wizards’ practice facility.
Toliver’s fourth and final three-pointer swished through with 1:08 left in the fourth quarter after the Fever (1-1) had trimmed the deficit to 79-73 thanks to a 5-0 run.
Delle Donne assisted on Toliver’s basket from the left wing, where the former Maryland standout did much of her scoring. Toliver made 6 of 11 shots to lead the Mystics with 16 points and was one of four starters in double figures.
Monique Currie and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt added 11 each, and Washington got 27 points from its reserves during a game in which every player on the active roster, including rookies Ariel Atkins and Myisha Hines-Allen, scored.
Washington was without starting off-guard Tayler Hill, a top three-pointer shooter with a knack for getting to the foul line, and defensive-minded forward LaToya Sanders. Hill is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, while Sanders, one of the league’s best shot blockers, is out at least several weeks with anemia.
“It’s just kind of feeling the game, feeling it out and just kind of knowing who needs to get the ball and when,” Toliver said. “Everybody’s capable on this team to make shots down the stretch. Pratt will make plays and get to the free throw line. I mean, whoever’s in is capable.”
Currie, Toliver and Delle Donne combined for Washington’s final 13 points, underscoring how a veteran lineup can impact an outcome in the waning minutes of a close game. While that trio has a combined 26 years in the WNBA, the Fever began the season with four rookies in its rotation.
Kelsey Mitchell, one of those rookies, came off the bench to score 16 points, going 3 for 4 from beyond the arc. The No. 2 overall pick in the WNBA draft completed her college career at Ohio State as the NCAA’s second all-time leading scorer.
Natalie Achonwa established career highs with 21 points and 12 rebounds to lead Indiana, which was playing the second leg of a back-to-back.
Indiana outrebounded the Mystics 39-27 but committed 15 turnovers that Washington converted into 17 points. The Mystics also went 11 for 25 from three-point range and made 15 of 16 free throws.
“Without looking at the stat sheet, I know there are a lot of things we can work on,” Currie said. “Mainly working on our rotations and talking more on defense so people don’t get lost or stuck on screens. I know we’ll look at the film to see what can we improve on. I think the biggest thing will be our communication.”
Currie received a hearty ovation during player introductions in her first game with her hometown team in four years. The Bullis graduate was a fixture for the Mystics for eight seasons beginning in 2007 before spending the next four years with the Phoenix Mercury and San Antonio Stars.
Thibault, also the general manager, signed Currie as a free agent this past offseason to provide scoring after all-star forward Emma Meesseman decided to sit out the season to recharge and focus on the Belgian national team.
Without Meesseman, Delle Donne has moved to power forward, with Currie inserted at small forward.
“I think you just kind of get into your comfort zone and know, like, all right, it’s go time,” Delle Donne said of Washington’s closing push. “The game was getting close. They were hanging around. You can’t let a team with that many talented players hang around, so the veterans had to just step up and take the lead.”