Why beating the Aces was more than just a win for the Mystics

Why beating the Aces was more than just a win for the Mystics originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

WASHINGTON — With less than 40 seconds on the clock and the contest against the Las Vegas Aces in hand, a soldout D.C. crowd rose to a raucous ovation as the Washington Mystics dribbled the ball over the time line for their penultimate possession. The fans were celebrating a feat that only four other WNBA fanbases have been able to cheer about this season.

Washington knocked off the league-leading and reigning champion Las Vegas Aces 78-62 on Saturday night. Even when toning down the magnitude of winning, a minimum, it was the Mystics’ biggest win of the season. It could end up being the most consequential.

Now, it came with a clear rest advantage and some fortunate injury chronology but at this point, a win is a win for Washington. The timing of a victory with this significance could not be more perfect for a team that had been struggling for the previous month and a half of the season. A deluge of injuries. A team that had fallen from third to tied for the last spot in the playoff standings. A team that had lost 10 of their previous 14 games.

“It’s a big win that we needed,” Eric Thibault said postgame. “We needed one. We didn’t want to go to this homestand without taking care of business but as we said in the locker room postgame, stay humble.”

The theme of the postgame media press conferences was that the job is not done. Washington remains under .500 with a 16-18 record, good enough for only a tie for sixth place in the standings. With six games remaining, they only have a three-game edge over the Chicago Sky who are the first team out of the playoffs.

But for anyone counting games down the stretch, this result is not one that many would have anticipated given how outstanding the Aces have been and where Washington sits.

But, for the first time since June 22, Thibault had the entire starting lineup available to him for a full 40 minutes. Most importantly, Elena Delle Donne was making her return back. It was just her second game of action since July 9 and the first where she could be fully unleashed.

“I think you could just see it,” Delle Donne said. “We were playing with joy, sharing the ball, trusting in each other and that’s what it can look like.”

Delle Donne finished tied for a game-high 21 points on six-for-10 shooting. She added seven rebounds, an assist, a steal and almost no signs of rust.

When the final buzzer sounded she, Shakira Austin, Natasha Cloud and Brittney Sykes all embraced in a group hug over the team’s Mystics logo. Austin threw her head back, smiling to the sky in relief. Besides them, Myisha Hines-Allen was chest-bumping Queen Egbo in forceful jubilation.

“We knew this win matters to us. I keep- we need to win games coming up because we can put ourselves in a better position and we need to lock some things in. So it was excitement,” Ariel Atkins said of the postgame locker room. “But I think, I won’t say we shocked ourselves a little bit in the sense of how focused we were together tonight because we’re not shocked by the win, but I think the amount of focus that we were for 40 minutes we have not done all season and I think everybody kind of took a depth breath and realized what that actually felt like.”

Results-wise, the win counts as much as any other. It could be substituted for the Sparks loss where Washington was up by nine points in the fourth quarter or the Lynx loss where they scored just five points in the final 3:51. They all count the same in the standings.

But with Delle Donne back, this game serves as a reminder to, not only Washington, but the whole league that this is what the Mystics can be when they are clicking on all cylinders. The Mystics can compete with the WNBA’s finest and win.

If the previous, Aug. 11 Vegas contest was “a bounce-back game of character,” according to Brittney Sykes, this is the bounce-back game that can set the tone for the team during the final stretch of the regular season.

And they accomplished it with three starters on a minutes restriction, Austin scoring just five points and the roster shooting 26.9% from three. As Atkins said of their abilities, it’s “us vs. us.”

“Our work is not done by any stretch,” Thibault said. “Winning one game with six to go helps but it doesn’t get you where you want to be. We’re not in the playoffs. We don’t have a certain seed locked up. We haven’t won anything yet. So it’s important to appreciate the win, get a little confidence from it, learn about ourselves and then get on to Tuesday night.

“I sound like Bill Belichick.”