Washington Mystics Coach Mike Thibault insists he has moved on after getting fired by the Connecticut Sun in the offseason. He says the pursuit of a WNBA playoff spot supersedes any lingering bad blood.
So 25 minutes before he faced his former team Sunday, the 62-year-old coach walked into the home locker room and delivered a simple message to his new players: “It’s not about me.”
Point guard Ivory Latta believed Thibault, but she also ensured another meaningful victory wouldn’t slip away. After nearly blowing a 21-point lead in the second half, Washington pulled away late to score a crucial 74-63 win over Connecticut on Sunday at Verizon Center.
The decisive sequence came with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Sun trailing by just five points.
After the 5-foot-6 Latta missed badly on a three-point attempt, she collected her own rebound. Center Michelle Snowhelped the Mystics maintain possession with a rebound after forward Monique Currie missed another shot from three-point range, and Latta then put the game out of reach by nailing a three with 45.5 seconds left. Before Latta’s basket, Washington (11-13) had connected on just 1 of 12 field goal attempts in the fourth quarter.
“I just went in there like LeBron James and got my rebound,’” said Latta, who had 14 points and five assists. “It fell in our hands, thank God.”
Latta also paced Washington late in a 66-62 triumph over the Sun in June, when Thibault made his return to Connecticut. He coached there for 10 years and led the Sun to two WNBA Finals appearances before getting fired in November.
That win, Latta admitted, was emotional for Thibault and the players. But forward Crystal Langhorne (team-high 18 points, nine rebounds) said the coach’s thoughts were clear in regards to that story line: “Nobody’s focused on that.”
Washington responded with a well-rounded effort. Snow added nine points and 10 rebounds while battling Connecticut star Tina Charles (18 points, 12 rebounds) inside. Guard Matee Ajavon had eight assists, and Currie tallied 12 points.
But the Mystics outscored the Sun only during the opening quarter, 23-7, as Connecticut went 8 minutes 48 seconds without a point in the first half. Washington led by 15 at halftime and watched that advantage climb to 21 with 4:32 left in the third quarter.
From there, however, the offense went stagnant.
“We missed easy shots, but our defense kind of got us through,” Thibault said.
Though Thibault wanted the focus to be on the postseason implications, the backdrop to Sunday’s matchup provided enough evidence about his effect on both franchises.
The Sun (6-15) was one win away from qualifying for the WNBA Finals a year ago and has the league’s worst record this season. Washington, meanwhile, already has as many wins as it did the past two seasons combined and sits one game ahead of New York for the last Eastern Conference playoff spot.
So when the final buzzer sounded, Thibault hugged Charles and guard Renee Montgomery, his two stars in Connecticut, but showed little emotion otherwise as he walked toward the locker room, another critical victory in hand.
“I think everybody probably feels they have a little chip on their shoulder when you go through something like this, but for me, I’ve been so wrapped up in just improving this group that I don’t look at it from an outside point of view,” Thibault said. “We’re just trying to survive in the playoff race.”
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