Takeaways: Washington Mystics optimistic about future after getting swept by Lynx in WNBA semifinals

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 17: Sylvia Fowles /
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Tierra Ruffin-Pratt is the heart and soul of the Mystics

The player on the Mystics who gets overlooked the most is starter Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, a defensive stalwart who had a very impactful postseason on both sides of the ball — she shot 44.4 percent from the field, averaged 5 rebounds per game, 8 points per game, and 3 assists in the five playoff games.

Ruffin-Pratt scored 16 points in the first game against the Lynx and 14 on Sunday afternoon, which is more impressive considering she was dealing with unnamed ailments that Thibault said left her in “excruciating pain.” The undrafted guard from the University of North Carolina is simply one of the toughest players in the league, an her teammates rely on her day in, day out.

“She’s got what you need as far as grit, she sets an example about how hard you’re supposed to compete every day,” Thibault said after the game. “And what she played through in this series is pretty incredible. You know, literally having a hard time standing up right the other day. So she just competes, and I think that the more of those players that you have on your team that compete every day, the more you give yourself a chance. And I think that’s what we see from her every day, she’s not afraid of a challenge.”

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 17: Tierra Ruffin-Pratt
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 17: Tierra Ruffin-Pratt /

Coming into this season, Ruffin-Pratt was focused on improving her rebounding and her mid-range jumpers, and when Hill was lost for the season, she began attacking the basket and drawing more fouls, which her team desperately needed. After the game, she talked to The Summitt about how she developed her mental toughness. (She wouldn’t talk about her pain, though, describing it only as “bumps and bruises.”)

“It’s just something I’ve always built off of since I was younger, I’ve always played up,” she said. “Then not being drafted, that’s always been fuel to the flames, just being able to be relevant in this league after not being drafted, it’s just something that keeps me grounded, keeps me going.

Krystal Thomas and Allison Hightower should give every struggling WNBA player hope

Two of the best stories in all of the WNBA this year are the tales of Alison Hightower and Krystal Thomas, who both were key factors in the Mystics’ postseason run.

I’ve written a lot about Thomas this year, but her story bears repeating. Thomas went to college at Duke, and was drafted 36th overall by Seattle in the 2011 — yes, that means she was the very last draft pick that year.

The Storm waived Thomas after just seven games in 2011, and then she signed with Phoenix, where she played in 15 games but started zero, and only averaged eight minuts a game. The next season in Phoenix she started 25 of the 29 games she played, averaging a significant 6.4 points and 8 rebounds per game. However, over the next four WNBA seasons, Thomas only started a total of six games and played for three different teams. In 2015 she wasn’t even in the league, and then in 2016 she was a bench player, a mere afterthought in Seattle. Washington signed her during the offseason, primarily so she could help sure up the post when Meesseman was in Belgium playing for the national team this year. But she was so impressive in Meesseman’s absence that she never left the starting lineup — overall, she started 30 of 34 games this year, averaging 26.1 points,  9.6 rebounds and 7 points per game.  She was also one of the most vocal leaders on the team.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 17: The Washington Mystics huddle up before the game against the Minnesota Lynx in Game Three of the Semifinals during the 2017 WNBA Playoffs on September 17, 2017 at the Capital One Arena.
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 17: The Washington Mystics huddle up before the game against the Minnesota Lynx in Game Three of the Semifinals during the 2017 WNBA Playoffs on September 17, 2017 at the Capital One Arena. /

“In the WNBA, anything can happen,” she told The Summitt. “You may think you’re the 12th man, and then all of a sudden, two people go down and you’re asked to play. It’s about being ready when your opportunity comes.”

Hightower, meanwhile, was a WNBA All-Star in 2013, but hadn’t played in the league or overseas in more than two-and-a-half years. First, she tore her meniscus in 2014, then there were complications after the surgery. Then, overseas, she ended up tearing cartilage in her knee in Israel. There was a misdiagnoses, followed by a botched surgery, that forced her to restart her recovery from square one a full year later. Multiple doctors told her she’d never play again.

But she didn’t give up. She was in Connecticut for training camp this year, but didn’t make the team. But when Hill went down for the season, Thibault, who coached Hightower her rookie year in Connecticut, signed her.

She didn’t get huge minutes, but with Mystics guards dropping like flies, she provided a veteran, aggressive presence from the bench that Thibault clearly trusted. She scored seven points in Game 3. Now, having passed this test, she’s going to spend the offseason getting even stronger, so she can return to her All-Star form.

“It was rough, but I definitely never gave up, and I’m so glad I didn’t,” she told The Summitt. “Because I love the game, and I know I have so much more in me to give, and I’m just so thankful that I had the opportunity to come here and play and show that, and I’m happy with where I’m headed.”