Washington Mystics managing partner Sheila Johnson emerged from a chair in the owner’s suite at Verizon Center to clasp her hands together in prayer, the tension almost too much to handle.
Forward Crystal Langhorne, one of the few remaining vestiges from this franchise’s two-year plunge to the WNBA cellar, stepped to the free throw line with 7.8 seconds left and the Mystics nursing a two-point lead. She then flashed a smile, took a deep breath and exorcised more demons.
In what could become the signature moment of a reclamation project that appears to be ahead of schedule, Washington upended defending WNBA champion Indiana, 64-60, in a come-from-behind victory that felt like salvation for the fans scattered throughout Verizon Center on Sunday afternoon.
Over the past 10 days, the Mystics have beaten the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference a year ago (Connecticut) and both 2012 WNBA finalists (Minnesota and Indiana). It’s just the second time in franchise history Washington has started a season with wins in four of its first five games.
“We right on time,” said point guard Ivory Latta (team-high 17 points), eschewing the notion that her team has overachieved thus far. “Hey, there’s a lot of people out there that doubted us, but ya’ll can just . . . hush. Don’t say nothing else.”
Another resilient fourth-quarter effort — “This year, we’re showing a whole different mentality. We’re closing out games,” Langhorne said — was the difference on Sunday.
After Washington led most of the afternoon, Indiana (1-5) pulled ahead by four when it closed the third quarter on a 7-0 run. But forwards Michelle Snow and Langhorne ensured the Fever suffered its fifth straight defeat as they combined for 14 of Washington’s final 18 points. Langhorne scored all 16 of her points in the second half and grabbed nine rebounds.
“We introduced Crystal to her teammates at halftime, let [them] know she’s been on the team and maybe we should throw her the ball,” Coach Mike Thibault joked.
It was Snow who gave the Mystics the lead on a putback with 1 minute 47 seconds remaining just before the shot clock expired. An official review confirmed the ball was released in time.
Following a layin by Indiana star Tamika Catchings (16 points), Snow responded with a short baseline jumper on a feed from rookie Tierra Ruffin-Pratt (T.C. Williams), a play Langhorne noted Thibault had drawn up in the previous huddle.
Catchings again tied the score at 58 with 36 seconds left on a putback, but Langhorne refused to let Washington crumble. She corralled an airball by Latta on the next possession and was fouled with 23 seconds remaining. She calmly made two free throws and Snow altered a shot by Indiana’s Karima Christmas, a 2011 Mystics draft pick, on the defensive end to provide Washington a cushion it didn’t relinquish.
Perhaps the best sign that these Mystics have turned a corner came via Thibault’s initial reaction to this latest triumph: “They won’t be asking for the film at the Hall of Fame.” Washington won despite shooting just 32.6 percent from the field after building an 11-point first-quarter lead, and committed 16 turnovers.
That, though, mattered little to Johnson as she thrust her arms into the air and screamed with joy as the final seconds ticked off the clock on another surprising victory.
“The chemistry is building,” Latta said. “and I’m glad it’s building in the fourth quarter.”