On June 29, the night of the Washington Mystics’ most recent home game, Ivory Latta sat at her locker with ice packs taped around her knees, a Cheshire cat smile on her face and her fingers held in front of her mouth like a mouse nibbling cheese.
The Mystics had just won their third straight game. Asked how close Washington was to becoming the successful team its raw talent suggested it could be, the backup point guard flicked her fingers before answering.
“It’s so close,” she said, “we can almost taste it.”
Then the Mystics — at the time the No. 1 team in the WNBA’s Eastern Conference — embarked on a three-game road trip. And they returned to Washington after three losses for a brief respite before facing Indiana on Friday.
Each road loss — at Los Angeles, Phoenix and Connecticut — looked like a regression for a team that had tightened up both mentally and defensively at the end of June.
In L.A. and Phoenix, the Mystics (10-8) gave up double-digit leads in the second half. The Sparks trailed by 14 points with six minutes left in the third before their comeback win, and the Sun pulled off the biggest comeback in franchise history — just two points shy of the WNBA record for biggest second-half comeback — when it rallied from a 22-point deficit halfway through the third quarter.
“We’ll be going, getting a lead and then something happens and it’s like . . . is that us out there?” Latta said after practice at Verizon Center this week. “That’s what it is: We get there, and it’s like one little thing or two little things we need to do and correct. We can’t continue to take two steps forward and a step back, three steps forward and two steps back. We can’t continue to do that if we want to be the team that we know we can be.”
Coach Mike Thibault attributes that poor second-half play to the team’s inexperience with situations in which they’re the ones being chased.
That could help explain why the defense slipped and the Mystics grew less aggressive late in the game against two desperate teams. The Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike played the entire second half with four fouls; in Connecticut, no one could stop Jonquel Jones as she muscled in 22 points.
“Part of it is our lack of maturity as a group — not as individuals but as a group — to understand the mentality a team brings when they get desperate,” Thibault said. “Both teams were desperate against us. . . . I know some people said we let our foot off the pedal. Maybe mentally a little bit, but I think it’s a lack of understanding of when it gets tough you have to set better screens, you have to fight over screens harder than you did when you got your lead. The game gets harder . . . and the more aggressive team gets rewarded.”
Washington has more reason than ever to play tenaciously. The Mystics are at full strength now, with forward Emma Meesseman back in the starting lineup after missing nine games while she played overseas with the Belgian national team. She eased back into the rotation and had her best game of the three she has played since returning stateside at Connecticut, where she scored 16 points and grabbed five rebounds in 31 minutes.
“My comfort level with the team is good,” Meesseman said Wednesday. “I mean, we were a little bit frustrated after [the losses], but if you aren’t, I think that’s a bad thing.”
The Mystics spent their week at home running drills and working on their defense before facing Indiana and then a physical New York team on Sunday.
Thibault is hoping the lessons learned on the first part of their road trip sink in before then.
“Part of it’s fixable with technique. Part of it’s fixable with understanding. Part of it’s just plain effort,” Thibault said. “I think we thought we were playing hard, but there’s a difference in mental toughness when you have to fight the screen and fight to block out and you have to go through that a few times, and unfortunately, this is one of those hard lessons to learn. If we learn from it, great. If we don’t, shame on us.”