Three Takeaways: Washington Mystics defeat the Phoenix Mercury in tight, testy battle

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - AUGUST 6: Allison Hightower
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - AUGUST 6: Allison Hightower /

WASHINGTON, D.C.— With conferences a non-factor in the playoffs these days, there was a lot on the line Sunday afternoon when the Phoenix Mercury showed up to the Verizon Center to face off against the Washington Mystics.

The Mystics entered Sunday just one game ahead of the Mercury in the all-important fourth spot in the WNBA standings—the spot that guarantees a postseason bye. Thanks to 20 points by Kristi Toliver, 16 rebounds by Krystal Thomas, and phenomenal defense on Diana Taurasi, the Mystics they finished the day two games ahead of Phoenix, with a 85-80 victory.

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“That’s one of those guts wins,” Mystics head coach MIke Thibault said after the game. “We just kind-of hung with it, figured out a way to win.”

Both teams were coming off of close losses on Friday—the Mercury lost by one point to the Connecticut Sun, while the Mystics fell by two to the San Antonio Stars—and both teams were  missing key players to injury. For the Mercury, Brittney Griner is still out with a left knee bone bruise and right ankle sprain. Washington, meanwhile, has three of its best players on the bench. Elena Delle Donne just had surgery on the torn ulnar collateral ligament on her left thumb and will be out for a couple of weeks, while Tayler HIll is out for the season with an ACL tear in her right knee and Natasha Cloud is still out with a partial plantar fascia tear.

But in a game with 12 lead changes, seven ties, and one technical foul (I bet you can guess the culprit), the Mystics found a way to win.

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 6: Kristi Toliver
WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 6: Kristi Toliver /

All of the Mystics guards are stepping up, especially Kristi Toliver

Delle Donne was, of course, the Mystics’ most high-profile acquisition in the offseason. But Kristi Toliver came to town too, and while she had a few rough games early on as she struggled to adjust to Thibault’s schemes, she has found her swagger lately.

On Sunday, Toliver led the way with 20 points, and seemingly every single one of those shots came in huge moments for the team.

“Kristi’s not afraid to take big shots,” Thibault said. “It’s huge. It’s about being ready and not afraid of big moments. It’s why we went and got her for situations like this. They beat her up early, they trapped her, and she found a way to get good shots.”

But Toliver didn’t do it alone. The Mystics have been short-handed at the guard spot with Hill out for the year and Cloud down for the time being, but all of the guards on the roster carried their weight today. Starter Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who is always a defensive powerhouse, had a great day with 17 points, five rebounds, three assists, and two blocks. Rookie Shatori Walker-Kimbrough looked as confident and competitive as she has all season, scoring nine points in 16 minutes, and Ivory Latta made a clutch three pointer and tallied three assists. But the biggest surprise was the play of Allison Hightower, who was just signed for the season by the Mystics last week.

The former All-Star, who has been battling injuries for the past three years and primarily out of the WNBA, was out there for 23 minutes and did a great job physically guarding Taurasi.

“When she was playing for me in Connecticut and was healthy, she was one of the best defensive guards in the league,” Thibault said when asked about Hightower, who he clearly trusts in game-deciding situations. If Sunday is any indication, she’s on her way to being one again.

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 6: Leilani Mitchell and Emma Meesseman
WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 6: Leilani Mitchell and Emma Meesseman /

Emma Meesseman is in the zone

Meesseman was 6-for-11 with 15 points on the day, and she added seven rebounds, two blocks, and two steals for an exclamation point. She got the game-sealing rebound at the end after Thomas, who struggled from the line all day, missed what would have been the game-sealing free throws.

Thibault was impressed by the calm she showed on the floor during the volatile stretches by the Mercury, and by her confidence and decision making down the stress.

“The maturity of Emma is starting to show, because she’s asking for the ball in big moments,” he said. “Emma stepping out after she missed shots earlier and shooting threes down the stretch, she would have never done that a year ago if she had missed shots early, she would have rather passed.”

Because Meesseman was in Belgium for Euros at the start of the season, and Delle Donne has been dealing with injuries for the past couple of months, Meesseman and Delle Donne have only been together on the court for a handful of games all season. The Belgian is playing at an All-Star level right now, and so if the two of them can develop chemistry when Delle Donne comes back, they could be a lethal combination in the playoffs.

WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 6: Krystal Thomas
WASHINGTON, DC – AUGUST 6: Krystal Thomas /

Brittney Griner is missed

While the Mystics certainly miss Delle Donne’s height and reach in the post, the absence of Griner was just lethal for Phoenix.

The Mercury had no answer inside for Mystics center Krystal Thomas, who had 16 rebounds on the day. The just-engaged Tianna Hawkins added eight rebounds from the bench, and 10 crucial points. The leading rebounder for the Mercury was Mo Currie, with eight. Overall, the Mystics, who are one of the best rebounding teams in the league this season, outrebounded the Mercury on offense 13-4, and on defense 29-22, for a 16-board advantage.

Without Griner there to enforce, Taurasi tried to push the issue all by herself up and down the court, which led to a sloppy game for the all-time leading WNBA scorer. Taurasi was only 5-for-16 on the night for 16 points, and she missed a lot of shots down the stretch. (And, yes, the before-mentioned technical was on her, in case you didn’t figure that out.)

The Mystics and Mercury have now split games this year, but the Mercury will be back in D.C. in two weeks for a chance to win the all-important playoff tiebreaker. Griner should be back by then, meaning Thomas will have a lot more competition off of the glass. Of course, Delle Donne might be back on the court for the Mystics then, which would certainly help Thomas, and the rest of the Mystics, breathe easier.