UNCASVILLE, Conn. — One of Mike Thibault’s biggest goals for the Washington Mystics ahead of the WNBA season was for them to pick up where they left off. Thibault, the Mystics’ coach and general manager, wanted the team to start with the same level of chemistry, skill and effort that led it to its first WNBA Finals appearance last summer.
He was not talking about the injury report.
Yet when the Mystics arrived at Mohegan Sun Arena on Saturday for their season opener, they did so without star forward Elena Delle Donne, who recently jammed the left knee she injured during the playoffs last year and did not travel with the team. She wasn’t the only one missing in Washington’s 84-69 loss to the Connecticut Sun — forward Aerial Powers was also left at home with a left gluteal injury, and the Mystics’ top draft pick, guard Kiara Leslie, continued to rehab after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in her right knee.
To make matters worse for Washington, starting guard Kristi Toliver injured her right leg during the game and sat for nearly the entire fourth quarter with an ice bag wrapped around her knee.
“It’s hard, but everybody goes through it,” Thibault said. “Luckily for us, hopefully — hopefully — it’ll only last a short amount of time at the start of the year and then we get better as we go. But it’s ugly to watch. When Kristi got hurt, that was tough. I’m a little concerned about it, so we’ll see. We’ll see when she gets home and sees the doc.”
Toliver was consulting with team doctors after the game and was not available to speak to media.
When training camp opened earlier this month, there were lofty expectations for a stacked (and healthy) Mystics team that now has three years of experience playing together: They were a popular favorite to win the league title, even landing atop the Associated Press’s preseason poll for the first time, and Delle Donne was selected in the annual general managers’ poll to win MVP.
But Saturday’s shortened rotation — the Mystics went eight deep — couldn’t keep up with Connecticut without Toliver and Delle Donne, no matter that forward Emma Meesseman made her return after sitting out last season and helped pick up some of the slack.
Toliver guided the team on offense before her injury (and even for a few minutes after, when she played with a visible limp) and the two teams looked evenly matched at halftime, with Connecticut leading 44-41. But the Mystics fell out of sync in the third quarter. Their defense lagged, and they were outscored 23-12 in the period.
They also shot 3 for 21 from the three-point line thanks in large part to a first quarter in which they missed all seven three-point attempts.
“We had more problems than [Toliver’s injury],” Thibault said. “She wasn’t going to solve some of those defensive problems tonight.”
Meesseman led the team with 14 points to go with six rebounds, and Toliver and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough had 11 points each. LaToya Sanders led Washington with nine rebounds.
None of it was enough to counter Maryland graduate Alyssa Thomas, who scored 23 points to lead the Sun. Jasmine Thomas added 13 points. George Washington graduate Jonquel Jones, the 2018 sixth woman of the year, had 10 points and 14 rebounds.
“We weren’t on the weak side on most of [Alyssa Thomas’s] rolls and stuff like that. . . . If you can just contest it, her percentage is much lower, but we didn’t contest her shot, so she had easy layups at the basket,” Sanders said. “. . . We were so worried about Jasmine Thomas and Jonquel Jones that we didn’t focus on the simple pick and roll, getting coverage on that.”
It didn’t help Washington that Toliver went down near the end of the first quarter. Thibault said she was kneed and then twisted her right leg, after which the starting guard stayed on the floor for a few moments until her teammates helped her to her feet. She walked to the bench on her own but with a pronounced limp.
The Sun went on a 6-0 streak at the start of the second quarter when Toliver was on the bench, but the Mystics weathered the barrage. It wasn’t until halfway through the third quarter that Connecticut started to pull away, by which time Toliver was visibly limping.
She crashed into a photographer under the Mystics’ basket with just under five minutes left and walked slowly to the bench, where she stayed for good.
Judging the team’s level of concern with mounting injuries, both Sanders and Thibault said the only good thing about them is that they’re happening at the start of the season. Thibault was asked if was concerned that the Mystics could fall behind in the standings early on, especially with Meesseman set to leave the team again in June for EuroBasket.
“I haven’t had time to really consider that,” Thibault said. “I’d be concerned if I don’t feel better about our health when Emma has to leave in a few weeks. That’s my biggest concern, that we’re a little bit healthier by the time she goes.”
Said Meesseman: “It feels good to be back. I had just hoped it was different when the game ended.”