But Saturday was a proper battle, and the Aces, touting a lineup packed with powerful bigs (6-foot-4 A’ja Wilson and 6-8 Liz Cambage) and wily guards (Sydney Colson and Kayla McBride), weren’t so easily toppled — especially with the Mystics missing Elena Delle Donne.
Washington lost what was by far the most competitive game of its season, 85-81, in front of a sellout crowd at Entertainment and Sports Arena. The loss dropped the Mystics to 9-6; they’re 0-3 since losing their all-star forward Sunday.
Delle Donne, who broke her nose last week, is in the league’s concussion protocol. Even with relief from Emma Meesseman, who rejoined the team after spending the past month overseas playing EuroBasket for her native Belgium, Washington let the Aces strengthen their hold on the league.
With three games left before the all-star break, Las Vegas (11-5) sits one game ahead of second-place Connecticut (10-6).
The Mystics and Aces have split the first two of their three regular season meetings. Washington took the first contest, 95-72, in June in Las Vegas and returned to Mandalay Bay Events Center on July 5 only to play just one half of basketball before the game was called off after an earthquake shook the arena with Washington leading 51-36 at halftime. The league has yet to announce when the makeup half will be played but is eyeing dates early next month.
All five starters, including Meesseman — who started in place of Delle Donne — scored in double figures, but the problems for Washington were fouls, Wilson and Cambage.
Wilson and Cambage made the difference down the stretch, when the Mystics had forged a tie at 75 with 1:47 to play. The bigs were able to shoot over the Mystics, even with two defenders on each shooter, because of their height. The pair combined to get the Aces a four-point lead, and McBride and guard Kelsey Plum sealed the win at the free throw line as Washington missed shot after shot.
Mystics Coach and General Manager Mike Thibault was pleased with his team’s effort — if not the result — especially after a lackluster performance Wednesday against Phoenix.
“I felt we looked rushed a little bit tonight on offense, and there were a lot of things — Emma’s first game back, no Elena — but I feel like the other thing is we’re kind of being held together by baling wire right now,” Thibault said. “We’ve got a lot of hurt people, Emma was sick during the game, Tianna [Hawkins] is hurting — just kind of one of those nights. . . . If we can get our composure back after this, we’ll be fine.”
As for the other factor that doomed Washington, the Mystics put the Aces on the line for 26 free throw attempts, and Las Vegas converted 21 of them. Ten of those came in the second quarter, but it was the game stoppage that affected Washington as much as the free points for Las Vegas did.
The first half of Saturday’s game was played without shot clocks above the basket — arena staff members said the clocks, which were working early Saturday, short-circuited following heavy rain and flooding in the arena Monday.
Throughout the game, an air horn was used in place of the normal buzzer to signal when the clock ran out.
Washington appeared unbothered at the start, jumping to a 10-2 lead and flying through the first quarter from there. The Mystics played with a fire that was nonexistent in Wednesday’s loss, delighting fans toward the end of the quarter with one sequence in which Natasha Cloud dribbled behind her back with a defender in front of her before driving for a windmill layup, then LaToya Sanders blocked Wilson on the other end and Kristi Toliver hit a long jumper. The Mystics led 28-16 at the end of the first period.
The Mystics fouled with great frequency in the second quarter, and interruptions disrupted Washington’s flow on defense, which made its offense stick rather than flow.
“The pace of the game gets slower, we can’t get out and run, and that’s obviously one of our biggest strengths,” Toliver said. “Part of it was we hadn’t battled as well as we wanted to on the defensive end the past couple of games, so I think we wanted to be aggressive and really be physical and have our presence known, and [we] kind of made some mistakes. Those are at least mistakes that we like — they’re aggressive mistakes — but obviously we have to play a lot smarter.”
Wilson had 17 points, as did Colson off the bench. Cambage finished with 13 points and nine rebounds.
Cloud led the Mystics with 18 points. Meesseman and Toliver added 15 apiece. Sanders had 11 points, two blocked shots and a game-high 10 rebounds. Ariel Atkins had 10 points and five rebounds.