Dominance on display.
WASHINGTON — When the Washington Mystics and Minnesota Lynx play this season, it’s easy to focus on All-Stars Elena Delle Donne and Sylvia Fowles. While they typically do not guard one another, they are both centerpieces of their teams’ game plans and leaders on and off the court.
On Sunday afternoon, Delle Donne came out on top in that matchup, scoring 23 points to Fowles’ three, and the Mystics topped the century mark for the third time this season in a 101-78 win. However, the biggest story of the day was how Washington’s bench players stepped up. The Mystics finished the game with just eight healthy players, but that was enough on this day. Head coach Mike Thibault kept the postgame message to his team simple: “This is a perfect example of why you need an entire team during the season.”
Here is how the Mystics’ usual reserves performed to give the Mystics their eighth win in their past nine games:
Points 1 and 2 for the Mystics came on a jumper from Aerial Powers, an athletic wing who moved from the bench to the starting lineup in place of Kristi Toliver. She scored 18 more points in her second-highest scoring output of the season and added 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals. And she delivered all of that production while playing two different positions: the wing in three-guard lineups and shooting guard in a new three-post lineup that gave Minnesota fits.
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Powers said after the game that her mentality was to “do everything that the team needs me to do,” and that was reflected in her team-best +19 rating. When asked specifically about her improved rebounding—her top three rebounding games have all come in the past two weeks—she pointed to a recent conversation with her dad. “He was like, ‘You know, you’ve always been that hustle player, you know, you got that Detroit in you. And you[’ve] got to be a hustler, because you’re not always going to have open shots … So what you can do to stay involved … [is] try and rebound.’”
Points 32, 33, and 34 came when Shatori Walker-Kimbrough sank a 3-pointer early in the second quarter. Walker-Kimbrough finished with 8 points, 1 assist, and 1 steal and had a team-high +19 rating in 16 minutes. She also registered another assist in the locker room postgame, when she snaked a media member’s microphone closer to Powers—and jumped in with a question of her own.
SWK: Does your mentality change when you’re in the starting lineup?
AP: That’s a good one!
SWK: If so, how do you approach the game differently?
AP: Actually, I don’t think my mentality changed at all when I—if I start, if I don’t start. Whenever I get out there, I just try to give all I got no matter what. … That means offensively and defensively.
Points 79 through 88 came from Emma Meesseman, who joined starters Delle Donne and Latoya Sanders on the court in the Mystics’ three-post lineup. When Minnesota countered by going small, the 6-4 Meesseman had a matchup she liked at power forward. Teammate Kim Mestdagh explained, “We knew there was going to be a mismatch, and it happened to be on Emma. So we keep feeding Emma, and if they don’t change anything, we don’t change anything either.” Meesseman finished with a season-high 25 points on 9-13 shooting and added 3 assists.
Before the game, Mystics assistant head coach Marianne Stanley explained how Meesseman has grown in her five-plus seasons with the team. “She’s always had the ability to score, but she’s now asserting herself and imposing her will on the game,” Stanley said. “She’s just gaining confidence and it’s allowed her natural ability to really shine.” Postgame, Meesseman praised her team for its ball movement and balanced scoring. She also revealed how she would celebrate the win: by surprising her brother, who is in town from Belgium, with tickets to Sunday’s DC United soccer game.
Points 97, 98, and 99 came when Myisha Hines-Allen drilled a 3-pointer over a defender with 45 seconds remaining. Hines-Allen, who is normally the fifth post player in the rotation, scored 13 points in nine minutes and added 3 rebounds (all offensive), 1 steal, and 1 block. Even though Hines-Allen doesn’t normally see much playing time—she was averaging 7.1 minutes per game entering Sunday—Meesseman said she was not surprised by her teammate’s contributions: “We play a lot of games together after practice, like shooting. So I know that she can do this. That’s great for her that she can bring it on the court in a game.”
The Mystics coaching staff is similarly confident in their second-year player, with Thibault calling it a “luxury” to have such a talented player as his fifth forward. Before the game, Stanley said of Hines-Allen, “She knows that we’re going to rely on her [at some point] … and I think she is ready at this stage in her career to really seize the opportunity when it comes.” Stanley’s words proved prescient: Hines-Allen’s 13 points were a season-high and just two off of her career-high.
Points 100 and 101 came on free throws from Kim Mestdagh, who is usually the last guard off the bench, after she recorded the first steal of her WNBA career and was fouled en route to the basket. Mestdagh noted the energy in the arena during the game and said she was excited to check in in the game’s waning minutes. Meesseman nearly set her up for a 3-pointer with a cross-court pass—“I was hoping she would shoot it,” Meesseman said—but Mestdagh fumbled the ball ever so slightly. She then passed it back to Meesseman, who also turned down the shot. Amusingly, Mestdagh was also disappointed that Meesseman didn’t shoot it: “I mean, she has a shot,” Mestdagh said postgame, in her signature understatement.
Of course, Mestdagh has quite a shot, too. Although fans haven’t seen much of it in games so far, she’s certainly shown it in practice and when playing with the Belgian national team. As the only natural point guard on the roster besides starter Natasha Cloud, Mestdagh could be especially important later in the season if Cloud needs more rest or sustains an injury.
Starting guard Kristi Toliver missed Sunday’s game because of a knee contusion she sustained in Thursday’s game against the Indiana Fever. She finished that game despite the injury but sat out Saturday’s practice, and team doctors recommended that she not play on Sunday. Nevertheless, Toliver tried to warm up on Sunday with a knee brace on, but Thibault said she found it “very uncomfortable” and he would rather rest her with an eye toward “a bigger picture”—namely, the playoffs.
Tianna Hawkins, typically the Mystics’ sixth woman, also missed the game. She has been battling knee soreness all season. Losing Toliver and Hawkins meant that the Mystics started the game with just nine healthy players (rookie Kiara Leslie has not played this season after undergoing two knee surgeries). They would lose one more with less than a minute to go until halftime, when Ariel Atkins got leveled by a Sylvia Fowles screen. She walked off the court under her own power, but went straight to the locker room and had an X-ray taken of her neck as well as tests for a concussion. Thibault did not know the results of those tests immediately after the game, and the status of all three players is unknown for the team’s game on Wednesday against Seattle.
With the win, Washington moves into first place in the WNBA at 17-7, one game ahead of Connecticut and 1.5 ahead of Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Continued strong play from the bench will be critical to the Mystics’ chances of finishing in the top two and securing a double bye in the WNBA playoffs. In fact, Connecticut head coach Curt Miller specifically cited Meesseman’s impact on Washington, along with that of other reserve forwards around the league, in explaining why he traded for backup forward Theresa Plaisance last week. While Delle Donne and the rest of Washington’s formidable starting lineup tend to get most of the attention, its bench could be the X-factor that wins Washington its first WNBA title.
All stats are courtesy of the game box score and Basketball-Reference.com.
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