On Thursday, it wasn’t just a double-digit run from the Aces in the fourth quarter that posed a problem for Washington, as it did in Game 1 on Tuesday. In Game 2, Washington staved off a big run at the end of the first half and another incursion in the fourth to hold on for a 103-91 win and take a 2-0 lead as the series heads to Las Vegas for Game 3 on Sunday.
“Obviously, a game of some interesting runs,” Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault said. “A lot of teams that have not been through this before would have been in a tough shape mentally at halftime. We gave up the run right before halftime, and yet there was no sense of disaster among those players. We traded baskets for the first couple minutes of the second half, and then we got going.”
The Mystics’ regular season, full of blowouts and straightforward wins, is a memory. On Thursday, Washington had to work to salvage momentum in the third quarter and did so thanks to another dominant stretch from Emma Meesseman — the forward who had a similarly successful third quarter in Game 1.
She had 13 points in the period Tuesday; in Game 2, she had 11 points in the third and finished with a game-high 30 points, which tied a career high for the 6-foot-4 Belgian.
“We know what not to do against Meesseman,” Aces guard Kelsey Plum said when asked what the team could take from these first two games.
Meesseman had plenty of help; five other Mystics scored in double figures, including Natasha Cloud (18 points) and LaToya Sanders (17). Elena Delle Donne, named league MVP for the second time in her career earlier Thursday, chipped in 14 points and 10 rebounds. Aerial Powers had 10 points. Kristi Toliver had 10 as well, seven of which came in the fourth quarter.
Sanders, the team’s 6-foot-2 center, had the added task of wrangling 6-8 Liz Cambage on defense. The Aces center led her team with 23 points and 10 rebounds, but Sanders kept her under wraps for large swaths of the second and fourth quarters. Sanders also had three crucial blocks on defense.
“I just take what the defense gives me. My job is probably the easiest on the team, because when they’re doubling on Elena or Emma, my job is basically to get wide-open jumpers and layups,” Sanders said. “So, I’m pretty sure I can do those two things . . . defensively, Cambage is a talent, she’s a big girl, so I just do what I can to just try to make it difficult for her. I know she’s going to make some buckets here and there, but I just try to dish it out as much as I take it.”
Plum, playing point guard instead of shooting guard as she did during the regular season, had 19 points. Jackie Young added 13.
But it was the Aces’ defense that stood out in the second quarter.
Las Vegas made smart switches to create mismatches, erasing a 10-point deficit. The Aces took an edge early in the third before Meesseman tied the game at 57 with a three-pointer at the top of the key.
From there, the teams went back and forth before Delle Donne put the Mystics up 65-64 with just over four minutes left in the period and Meesseman won a key jump ball on the other end to give possession back to Washington, then dished a sharp pass to Sanders in the middle of the lane who completed a three-point play to put the Mystics up 71-64. Toliver capped the sequence with a deep corner three in front of Vegas Coach Bill Laimbeer, bringing her hand to her ear, readying for cheers, before the ball even swished through the net.
Washington had its 10-point lead back with 1:45 left in the quarter and was never seriously threatened after that, though Las Vegas got within eight midway through the fourth quarter.
“They capitalize on everything that you do,” Plum said.
The Mystics did well keeping Las Vegas close in the competition on the boards, gaining 28 rebounds to the Aces’ 35, and just as critically, the free throw attempts were close as well: Washington edged Las Vegas there, 20-19. Those two factors were nearly as key as Meesseman’s shooting, Delle Donne’s rebounds and Sanders’s overall performance.
“We got contributions from a lot of people, obviously Kristi had a great fourth quarter — little by little, it’s looking like the Kristi Toliver that we all know — I thought Aerial Powers gave us a huge lift tonight, and we just did what we were supposed to do,” Thibault said. “We held serve. The next game will be the hardest game so far.”