With the Mohegan Sun Arena speakers blasting the most appropriate jock jam for the occasion — “Celebration” by Kool & The Gang — the decibels reached earsplitting levels. Then, as Connecticut Sun guard Courtney Williams commandeered the emcee’s microphone, closed her eyes and roared, “Let’s go!” her fans obeyed and unleashed a torrent of noise. Still, Delle Donne kept talking, and the Mystics huddled around her were listening.
In the quiet of the locker room, the words weren’t loud, but they were confident.
“They tried to push it to Game 5. That’s what they did. Now our season is on the line, too,” guard Natasha Cloud said. “But if you ask me, I’ll take our team 10 times out of 10.”
Although the Mystics can look back at Game 4 and see traces of their dominance — including coming back from 18 points down in the first quarter — before they make any guarantees, the players should also notice the problematic reasons that there will be a Game 5 on Thursday night in Southeast Washington.
For one, the Sun took advantage of the Mystics’ hacking defenders. In the opening quarter, Sun shooters walked to the free throw line after three of the Mystics’ first four fouls. And during a game played in a casino, the home team made 23 of 26 foul shots; Washington was 10 for 13. When the disparity is that big, the house always wins.
Also, Connecticut forced a winner-take-all game because it again proved to be the better rebounding team. Center Jonquel Jones secured a game-high 13, besting the combined efforts of four Mystics starters.
Of course, three of those players — Delle Donne, Kristi Toliver and Ariel Atkins — have played on despite injuries. Toliver took another beating by colliding with Jones in the second quarter. Already playing with a brace on her right knee, Toliver slowly got up and held her lower back. The injury didn’t force her out and Toliver still logged 33 minutes, but she finished with only seven points and five assists — a significant drop from her 20-and-10 performance in Game 3.
The swing in Toliver’s production wasn’t the only anomaly.
In the first half, the Mystics stumbled into an 18-point deficit on plays such as Sun forward Alyssa Thomas scoring over Cloud in the paint, then staring her down for good measure. Still, that didn’t seem too jarring, considering Thomas stands two inches taller than the Mystics guard, so she better be able to back down a smaller player into oblivion.
The game still hadn’t gone off the rails when forward Shekinna Stricklen shouted and pumped her fists while celebrating her two three-pointers within the first five minutes. Although Stricklen has mostly been off the mark this series, missing 5 of 6 deep shots in Game 1, she possesses a career 37.5 percentage and knows how to shoot from the perimeter.
No, the moment when Tuesday entered “The Twilight Zone” — and the first sign that the Mystics wouldn’t be spraying champagne in the visitors’ locker room — was when Delle Donne missed a free throw. The player who had set a league record by hitting 97.4 percent (114 of 117) and had made 18 of 19 in the playoffs threw up a dud with 1:15 left in the first quarter.
At that point, the Mystics were down 30-14, but they still didn’t lose grip of the game. By the fourth, Washington had taken a slight lead and in the final 94 seconds it still had opportunities to steal the night. With the Sun leading 87-86, Washington had three scoring chances and couldn’t convert.
“We also had a few open shots that we didn’t hit,” guard Aerial Powers said. “I mean, the ball movement was there, but we didn’t hit a few shots. I honestly feel that way. We just have to be better come Thursday.”
The Mystics must wait one more day to put those words into action.
Read more on the Washington Mystics: