The Washington Mystics have felt somewhat like a brand new team again this month. With star forward Elena Delle Donne out for at least two more weeks with a thumb injury and second-leading scorer Tayler Hill out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, Coach Mike Thibault has supplemented his roster with two new players and asked everyone else to step up their production.
Thibault said the week of practice leading up to Saturday’s bout against the Indiana Fever felt like a mini-training camp.
But his players performed expertly come game time, beating Indiana, 100-80, in front of 7,337 at Capital One Arena.
Washington led from whistle to whistle behind Krystal Thomas’s strong defense and a breakout performance from rookie Shatori Walker-Kimbrough to notch its fifth win in the past six games.
The most dramatic part of the evening was a 45-minute delay before the start of the second half that was caused by a leak in the arena’s roof. Comfortably leading 49-36 at halftime, the Mystics had extra positive energy to expel at halftime, so they initiated a dance-off between the two teams, much to the crowd’s delight. Washington is becoming adept at dealing with leaks — Saturday was its second game affected by a faulty roof at Capital One Arena. The Mystics’ July 28 game against the Connecticut Sun was postponed for the same reason and has been rescheduled for Aug. 29.
“You just come out and get loose and stick with your game plan,” Thibault said with a smile.
The Mystics’ plan ended up including a career-best performance from Thomas, who is having a resurgent season with Washington in her sixth year in the WNBA. She scored a career-high 20 points while going 7 for 8 from the field and grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds.
Initially plugged into the starting lineup as a stopgap while forward Emma Meesseman was fulfilling international team duties in Europe, Thomas has proved integral as the head of the Mystics’ team defense. Saturday was her fourth consecutive game pulling in at least 14 rebounds.
Meesseman added 15 points and seven assists.
“Every now and then you get a little blast from the past. The knees start feeling a little better,” Thomas joked afterward. “No, I just wanted to go out there and play as hard as I could, do what I needed to help the team tonight.”
A large part of Thomas’s value to the Mystics has been her leadership. As one of the more vocal players on the court, her direction has been critical in helping Walker-Kimbrough along in her first season in the league. Saturday’s game proved to be a milestone in the Maryland graduate’s development.
Walker-Kimbrough announced her presence from the start. She stole the ball on Indiana’s first possession and smartly drew two fouls early in the first quarter to get Washington on a roll. She ended up with a season-high 13 points on 2-for-6 shooting from the field and 7-for-8 shooting from the free throw line.
“The coaches, the players in practice continue to give me confidence,” Walker-Kimbrough said, “and that really goes a long way.”
Thibault has leaned on Walker-Kimbrough heavily in the past two games as he adjusts to a shorthanded roster, and she will continue to figure into the starting lineup with Delle Donne not expected to return until an Aug. 25 game against the New York Liberty. Natasha Cloud, another guard the Mystics had been missing, logged 17 minutes in her first game back since tearing her right plantar fascia on Aug. 4.
“Especially with Tayler being out for the rest of the year, we need some guards to step up. . . ” Thibault said. “Most of it for Shatori right now is understanding that we need her, that you can’t just be out there, or I can’t play you. If you’re just going to be out there occupying space, it doesn’t do us any good. Now you have to impose your will in the game. I told her on Thursday that she’s done being a rookie. We don’t want the rookie Shatori. We want the one that wants to be a veteran.”
Indiana’s star veteran Candice Dupree led four Fever players in double figures with 26 points on 12-for-18 shooting after a slow start, but her teammates weren’t able to back up her heroics. The Fever recorded its seventh loss in its past eight games and has only won twice since July 1.