It didn’t take long Wednesday for Washington Mystics Coach Mike Thibault to realize his team was about to be exposed inside. On New York’s first possession of the night, Liberty point guard Cappie Pondexter noticed center Kara Braxton with deep post position against Mystics center Michelle Snow and fed her for an easy layup.
Braxton would repeat the feat four more times, manhandling Snow before Thibault began shuttling through his rotation of centers and power forwards. Eventually, though, he ran out of options, and so did the Mystics.
In its first game since the WNBA’s all-star break, Washington lost to the New York Liberty, 88-78, in front of a crowd at Verizon Center that included Washington Wizards players John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., as well as Wizards Coach Randy Wittman.
The defeat could prove costly, with both the Liberty and Mystics battling for one of four Eastern Conference playoff spots. Washington (9-10) is tied for third place with Indiana, and New York (8-11) is just one game behind.
For now, though, the immediate concern is how New York “bullied us inside,” according to forward Crystal Langhorne. The Mystics allowed a season-high 56 points in the paint and watched three Liberty post players combine to hit 24 of their 35 shots in a dominating display that befitted a team coached by Bill Laimbeer, the former Detroit Pistons bad boy.
Thibault called the performance “highly disappointing” after the Mystics entered the all-star break with a resounding 21-point comeback victory over Eastern Conference leader Chicago last Wednesday.
“If you had the answer, you’d wave a wand and go do it,” Thibault said. “I thought tonight we saw some of the symptoms of the past a little bit. Hopefully that’s not true, but I thought we got out-physicaled.”
Braxton finished with a season-high 22 points and eight rebounds and started the contest 10 for 10 from the field. Her backup, rookie Kelsey Bone, added 15 points and 11 rebounds. Forward Plenette Pierson also chipped in 16 points, with almost all of the damage coming within five feet of the basket. Laimbeer called it the trio’s “best game of the year.”
Pondexter (nine assists) then scored 11 of her 19 points in the fourth quarter when New York pulled away with a decisive 13-2 surge.
Washington, meanwhile, shot just 36.4 percent from the field, and its five starters hit only 16 of 50 shot attempts. Guard Matee Ajavon scored a season-high 20 points, but the Mystics simply couldn’t keep pace with New York pounding the ball inside at will.
“We weren’t focused,” said center Kia Vaughn, who grabbed 12 rebounds. “It was just annoying things that were in our control.”
Nonetheless, it was a back-and-forth game through three quarters. The Mystics were down by two at halftime despite falling behind by double digits in the game’s opening four minutes. A spirited effort by Washington’s bench, led by forward Emma Meesseman (11 points, four assists), cut the deficit to one entering the fourth quarter.
But things fizzled from there, even as Thibault tried to combat New York’s size with double teams and a bigger lineup. He left the arena blaming himself, hopeful a solution would materialize by Tuesday when the Mystics and Liberty meet again.
“We were just flat most of the night,” Thibault said. “That’s on me. Maybe we weren’t prepared enough,” Thibault said. “We’re gonna have to reevaluate what we do the next time we play them.”