INDIANAPOLIS — With 90 seconds left in Thursday’s Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Ivory Latta had possession just as Washington Mystics Coach Mike Thibault called a timeout. Defending Latta was the Indiana Fever’s Briann January, who moved in uncomfortably close to the all-star point guard.
Latta took exception, raising her left arm to brush away January in an attempt to protect her face, which had absorbed multiple blows all night. Officials charged Latta with a technical foul, underscoring one of Washington’s most physical showdowns this season.
But even before that exchange, the third-seeded Mystics were coming undone amid breakdowns at both ends of the floor in a 78-73 loss at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Washington will try to even the best-of-three series Saturday at Verizon Center and force a Game 3 here Monday against the East’s No. 2 seed.
“I’m in pain,” Latta said after scoring 22 points, including a three-pointer with 5.4 seconds left that drew Washington to 75-73 after it had trailed by nine points one minute earlier.
January made the first of two free throws after Latta’s basket for a three-point lead, and during the jostling for the rebound, Mystics forward Monique Currie latched on to Tamika Catchings’s arm and was called for a foul with 4.2 seconds to play. The WNBA’s active leader in career rebounding, steals and free throws made both foul shots.
The loss was particularly disheartening given how well Washington had played the 2012 WNBA champions on the road this year. The Mystics entered having swept the regular season at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, winning those games by an average of nearly 15 points.
In the Mystics’ most recent road win against Indiana, Kia Vaughn logged a season-high 22 points. This time the Fever paid much more attention to Washington’s starting center, limiting her to two points on 1-for-6 shooting with five personal fouls.
Also failing to repeat her regular season success against Indiana was rookie guard Bria Hartley, who had just five points. The No. 7 pick in April’s draft had been averaging close to 12 points against the Fever, which forced 17 turnovers that led to 18 points. It was the third consecutive game in which the Mystics committed at least 17 turnovers.
“It was an interesting game in a lot of ways,” Thibault said. “We preach that to be a good playoff team, you have to win two out of three categories among rebounding, turnover differential and free throw difference, and we lost all three tonight. They gambled and got away. They got steals. They got aggressive. They got to the free throw line.”
Catchings was front and center in that regard for the Fever. Despite missing 11 of 15 shots, the MVP of the 2012 WNBA Finals finished with 22 points, including making all 14 of her free throw attempts. She also had seven steals and made a pair of foul shots for a 60-58 lead with 4 minutes 32 seconds to go.
Latta, who played wearing a protective mask, followed with a three-pointer at 4:18 for the Mystics’ last lead at 61-60. Indiana went ahead to stay on a pair of free throws from center Erlana Larkins, and subsequent Mystics possessions included a pass out of bounds by rookie center Stefanie Dolson and a Latta turnover when she could not escape a half-court trap. On the possession before Latta was assessed a technical, the Mystics, trailing by seven points, were called for a shot-clock violation.
“Indiana is already an aggressive team,” Currie said. “They lead the league in fouls, so we knew that they would be even more aggressive in the playoffs, with Catch being their leader and how aggressive she is. Going back to D.C. for Saturday, I think we have room to turn up our intensity a little bit more.”
Hours after being named the WNBA’s MVP, Maya Moore scored 24 points to help the defending champion Minnesota Lynx beat the visiting San Antonio Stars, 88-84, in the opener of the Western Conference playoffs. . . . The Seattle Storm won the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, with Tulsa picking second. . . . Phoenix’s Sandy Brondello will be named WNBA coach of the year Friday.