‘It’s always something extra’: Looking back at the earthquake that shook up the Mystics-Aces season series

What happened when the earth shook

With 30 seconds left in the first half of a Las Vegas Aces game on July 5, the crowd at the Mandalay Bay Events Center rose to its feet, much like it has throughout the season for the first-place Aces. But this time, the fans weren’t celebrating an A’ja Wilson post move or a Kayla McBride three-pointer.

“We thought somebody was walking in, like famous or something, because everybody started getting up,” McBride told High Post Hoops. Her teammate Kelsey Plum told ESPN, “I thought there was a streaker or something in the stands.”

As it turned out, the biggest clue was not in the stands, but high above Plum’s head. As she dribbled across half court, guarded by the Washington Mystics’ Kristi Toliver, the Jumbotron began to sway. Suspended above the court by cables, it swung precariously back and forth after a 7.1 magnitude earthquake shook the ground below. Neither Plum nor Toliver felt the earthquake—“I had no idea,” Plum said—and neither did Mystics coach Mike Thibault on the sideline. But at halftime, with the Mystics rattling the Aces en route to a 51-36 lead, word quickly spread among both teams that an earthquake had hit. Three miles away, the NBA Summer League faced the same situation, right down to the swaying Jumbotron.

The Aces and Mystics went through their usual halftime routines in their respective locker rooms, but when they came back onto the court, they were told to return to their locker rooms. Arena officials checked the court for damage while the teams waited for more information. The Aces “were just chilling,” according to Wilson. “We’d been told on the court that it was an earthquake, but other than that … [we] didn’t really know what was going on.” The players were the last to receive updates in a real-life game of telephone that started with the WNBA office and Mandalay Bay building officials and sent information first to the general managers, then to the coaching staffs and then to the players.

Thibault and McBride both confirmed that the teams waited for about 30 minutes past the normal end of halftime before the WNBA officially decided to postpone the game. “It probably went on about 10 minutes longer than it should have,” Laimbeer told High Post Hoops. “We were going to [continue]—the building [officials] came back and said they were comfortable playing, but the league said, ‘Wait, wait, wait.’ And the men didn’t play, so I bet they felt pressure for us not to play.” Shortly after hearing the news, Wilson lamented, “our fans really showed out and we hate we couldn’t continue the game … this is definitely something I’ve never encountered before.”

The postponement appears to be unique in league history; not even the two head coaches, with over 30 years of WNBA experience between them, had experienced anything similar. The closest either one could think of was in 2017, when the Mystics had one game canceled and another game delayed due to a leaky roof—“an indoor rainout,” as Thibault put it. There was also the infamous forfeit last season, after the Aces endured a multitude of travel delays en route to Washington and subsequently declined to play. Some of the players said they had experienced earthquakes growing up, but for McBride, the July 5 earthquake was her first one ever: “It was crazy. I’m from the East Coast, so this stuff doesn’t happen over here. So that was my first experience with that.”

The postponed game has yet to be completed, as that game was the last time the teams were scheduled to meet in Las Vegas. Washington won the first meeting in Las Vegas on June 20, and the teams played their third game in the season series on July 13. The Aces prevailed 85-81 in Washington, DC, despite a clock issue that delayed the start of the game. Afterward, Thibault said, “I feel fortunate we went out there and beat them at their place. I’m sure they were looking for that revenge factor. And then we kind of [have] the rubber match when we go back, whenever that is.”

Almost two weeks after the postponement, the WNBA has still not announced when or where the teams will play again. Thibault told High Post Hoops that he had hoped to hear by July 13 or 14, but the league is also busy preparing for the upcoming WNBA All-Star Game. He explained, “We’re going to go to Vegas. … it’s more, I think, where we’re going to play as opposed to when. … I’m not speaking for the league, but I think we’ll play the 5th or 6th of August out there.” The Mystics play at Phoenix on August 4 and then are off until August 8, while the Aces play on August 3 and 9, so that would minimize the Mystics’ added travel burden and give both teams time to rest before their next game. However, as Thibault alluded to, Mandalay Bay Events Center is booked on those dates, as are the two other arenas under the same ownership, so an alternate site would need to be secured.

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 13: A’ja Wilson #22, Kayla McBride #21, and Liz Cambage #8 of the Las Vegas Aces look on before the game against the Washington Mystics on July 13, 2019 at the St. Elizabeths East Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

When the WNBA does announce a date and location, it is also expected to confirm that the game will resume where it left off, at the start of the third quarter. However, the coaches had different statements about that on July 13. In his postgame remarks, Thibault asserted, “Luckily, we’re going back with a lead, but as you know, in this league, that doesn’t mean a lot if you don’t come ready to play.” On the other hand, Laimbeer claimed before the game, “I don’t know whether we’re going to play the whole game over again. … I guess we’ll see.” Perhaps one or both coaches are trying to speak their desired outcomes into existence.

Whenever the game resumes and however long it lasts, it will be appointment television. Not only are Washington and Las Vegas two of the league’s top three teams, with five All-Stars combined, but, as McBride put it, “Every time we play Washington, it’s something.” She added, “There’s never a simple game with us; it’s always something extra.” Perhaps next time, we can settle for “extra exciting finish” over “extra long halftime.”

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