September 5, 2020
Leilani Mitchell’s ‘sensational’ performance snaps Mystics’ losing streak
Mitchell became just the second WNBA player this season to have 20+ points and 10+ assists in a game
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Washington Mystics point guard Leilani Mitchell drives past Atlanta Dream guard Courtney Williams on August 19, 2020. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images
“It was perfect.”
That was how Washington Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen described point guard Leilani Mitchell’s 20-point, 12-assist performance in Friday’s 79-69 win over Chicago. The double-double was the second of Mitchell’s career, and she recorded season highs in both points and assists.
When Mitchell got to the locker room after the game, Hines-Allen doused her with water to celebrate her standout performance—and documented it in her Instagram story for the world to see. Hines-Allen told the media, “When your point guard is on like that, and she was getting hype, I mean, it was perfect.”
Mitchell set the tone early with an assist to Hines-Allen on the Mystics’ first possession and a 3-pointer two possessions later. That gave the Mystics a 7-2 lead that they would never relinquish. By the end of the first quarter, Mitchell had six points and a whopping eight assists. She registered her tenth assist with 2:06 left in the second quarter and got her double-double by making two free throws late in the third quarter. She then scored eight points, including two of her four 3-pointers, to thwart the Sky’s comeback bid in the fourth quarter.
“Leilani was sensational,” Mystics head coach Mike Thibault said postgame. “[She] played the whole second half, didn’t want to come out. She just wanted to get us a win badly.”
Mitchell got her team that win by playing at a level that almost no one else has reached this season. According to Mystics PR, Mitchell and Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi are the only players to have 20 points and 10 assists in a game this season. But Mitchell called the victory “a total team effort” and praised the team’s ball movement, defense, and ability to knock down big shots.
Indeed, the ball movement gave the Mystics four players with 13+ points in Mitchell, Hines-Allen, Emma Meesseman, and Ariel Atkins, and the Mystics turned defense into offense to top 30 points in the first quarter for the first time since the season opener. But Mitchell, the smallest and oldest player on the court at 5’5 and 35 years old, was the biggest factor on this night.
Chicago tried to adjust its defense in the second half to slow Mitchell down, being more aggressive on the Mystics’ pick-and-rolls to keep Mitchell out of the lane. But she used her quickness to go by bigger players, and the Mystics’ ball movement freed her up for some open jump shots as well. Thibault identified a 3-pointer she made off of a pass by Meesseman 42 seconds into the fourth quarter as “a big one … that kind of got our momentum going again.”
Mitchell shoots a wide-open shot near the Mystics bench against the Los Angeles Sparks on August 13, 2020. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images
Mitchell’s heroics seemed to lift a weight off of all the Mystics, snapping a five-game losing streak and moving the team closer to a potential playoff berth. “That felt great,” Thibault admitted. Hines-Allen was more effusive:
“It felt good! Oh my god. Like, after the game, [Atkins] just took a deep breath. … She’s like, ‘Oh my god, my mom’s gonna be so happy.’ We’re just happy to win a game. It’s a hard season; mentally, physically, emotionally, it’s just draining. So it’s just like … let’s get better at one thing; let’s just try to do something better than we did last game. And it definitely showed today.”
Mitchell said that the process was just as exciting for her as the end result. “Tonight was fun, both offensively and defensively,” she said. “… Obviously, the end result, a win, is the ultimate goal, but even throughout the course of the game, we were just enjoying it out there, and there’s not a lot of games when we’re actually having fun. … Most of the games just feel like a struggle, which of course it’s going to be when we have so many things we have to learn individually and together as a team [with several players injured or sitting out the season].”
She added, “We went back to playing how we were early in the season. We got a lot of easy looks, we had a lot of movement on offense, and it shouldn’t be that way, but when we’re playing well on offense, usually our defense picks up as well and it did tonight.”
This season is Mitchell’s second stint with the Mystics, as she played ten games with the team in 2016 following the Rio Olympics. “The first time around was kind of a tough situation for her in that she came from the Olympics, basically flew around the world, slept for 24 hours, and got up and played a game without a practice and kind of never got caught up,” Thibault told the media last month. To make matters worse, the Mystics were riddled with injuries and, in Thibault’s words, “it was just kind of piecemeal, patchwork trying to get our team together.”
“Probably for her, this feels a little bit like , in some ways,” Thibault added. “But I think the difference in her game is that she’s just a lot older now, more mature … [and] more confident … As you get older, you kind of know what you can do and you know the league better and you’ve played with some great players and you’ve learned some things along the way.”
Mitchell has now played three times as many minutes in a Mystics uniform this season as she did in 2016, and Thibault hopes that everything Mitchell is learning about playing with her new teammates and relearning the Mystics’ system will benefit the team in 2021. When Mitchell signed with the Mystics in February, she expected to play with Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, and Latoya Sanders, none of whom are in the WNBA bubble this season. But their absence, along with that of Tina Charles and an injury to Aerial Powers, has given Mitchell an opportunity to play more minutes and be more of a leader on this younger Mystics squad.
Friday’s performance was clear evidence of what Mitchell can do with that opportunity and why Thibault prioritized signing her, even when point guards Kristi Toliver and Natasha Cloud were both still on the roster. “It shows [that] … her character is such that, even with all the adversity we’ve had, she’s continuing to play hard and be a good example for the younger players,” Thibault explained postgame. “And she and Ariel Atkins have been very vocal with the team about how we’re going to play and what we’re doing.”
Earlier this week, Mitchell had seven points and five assists to help the Mystics stay within a few possessions of league-leading Seattle. While it wasn’t enough to end the Mystics’ losing streak, the result boosted the team’s confidence, and holding Seattle to 71 points represented a major breakthrough defensively. But Mitchell took her game to another level against Chicago, deftly setting up her teammates in the first half and shooting the Mystics to their fifth win of the year in the second.
Thanks to Mitchell, everything was perfect for the defending champions, at least for one night.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.