Fortuitously for the Mystics, the lesson that Coach-General Manager Mike Thibault was trying to impart also applied to Game 1 of the semifinals Tuesday night.
The Mystics rebounded from a poor first half at Entertainment and Sports Arena and held on through a furious 16-5 run by fourth-seeded Las Vegas at the end of the game to beat the Aces, 97-95, and take a 1-0 series lead into Thursday’s matchup here.
The game was so tight at the end that it looked for one breathless moment as if fans might witness a repeat of Las Vegas’s dramatic, last-second win against Chicago on Sunday: Washington’s Elena Delle Donne missed a jumper with 4.5 seconds to play, and Vegas got the rebound and moved the ball to guard Kelsey Plum. Aces Coach Bill Laimbeer said he was shouting for a timeout and Plum looked as though she was looking for a foul call on her desperation jumper, but no whistle came and time ran out.
“I was standing right next to the referee by design; as soon as they missed the shot, I would be yelling, ‘Timeout, timeout, timeout!’ ” Laimbeer said. “They missed the shot, we got the rebound, and I yelled it five times — [a referee] even looked at me when I was yelling and made a conscious decision not to call a timeout. I do not understand why. I think the league should make a little bit of an investigation to understand why that timeout was not called. . . .
“I don’t know if [Delle Donne] was fouling when I called it or not. I just know in the last couple seconds of the game, weird stuff happened.”
For Washington, the entire game was a little off-kilter. Coming off an eight-day layoff by virtue of the double bye they earned heading into the playoffs, the Mystics looked as if they hadn’t played in more than a week, and Las Vegas took advantage early.
The top seed struggled on defense, allowing the Aces to shoot 61.8 percent in the first half as Washington struggled to get into an offensive rhythm and faltered from deep. The Mystics ceded ground both in the paint — bigs A’Ja Wilson and Liz Cambage combined for 25 points before halftime — and around the perimeter, where Plum made both of her attempts from the three-point line and was 4 for 4 from the field.
“I think we had some jitters. You could feel that it had been nine days since a game — everybody was super excited,” Delle Donne said. “But [there were] a little bit of jitters where we were not getting into our plays, or messing some things up, driving Coach nuts.”
Washington was able to regroup on defense at halftime, which helped create the offensive flow that was absent in the first half. Emma Meesseman led the way in the third quarter, ending the night with a game-high 27 points — three shy of her career high — and 10 rebounds. Delle Donne had 24 points after a slow start, and point guard Natasha Cloud added 12. LaToya Sanders had nine points and stood out on defense with five rebounds, five steals and three blocks.
The Mystics also got a boost from the return of Kristi Toliver, who played 23 minutes in her first game since suffering a bone bruise in her right knee Aug. 8. Like the rest of her team, the Maryland graduate took some time to find her footing, but she finished with eight points, on 3-for-8 shooting, and four assists
. She went 3 for 4 in the second half, including two big three-pointers.
“It wasn’t bad,” Toliver said of the pace she was able to keep after the long layoff. “Definitely want to play faster overall. . . . Twenty-three minutes is pretty good; didn’t feel too, too fatigued. Now having this baseline I can kind of challenge myself to get more aggressive on defense and pick people up, run the floor differently.”
Wilson led Las Vegas with 23 points. Cambage had 19 but critically scored only four points after halftime, and Kayla McBride added 19
. Plum had 16.
Thibault forecast this series as a matchup in which the nuts and bolts would matter most, with rebounds and free throw attempts taking a starring role.
He was right: The Aces beat Washington on the boards 22-15 and held an 11-3 edge from the free throw line at the end of a first half in which they looked plenty comfortable on the court where the Mystics had won their previous 10 games. It was only once the Mystics finally started getting to the line — and stringing together stops — in the second half that they regained composure.
“Sometimes,” Thibault said, “it’s best to survive.”