September 17, 2020 

The 2020 Washington Mystics were “warriors” until the end

Last-second playoff loss to Phoenix stings, but Mystics realize how much they accomplished

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Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (second from left) high-fives point guard Leilani Mitchell (left) during a game against the Seattle Storm on July 30, 2020. Then-Mystics guard Shey Peddy is directly behind Atkins. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Early in the third quarter of the Washington Mystics’ 85-84 loss to Phoenix Mercury, Diana Taurasi hit a three-pointer. Her face betrayed a hint of a grin.

It didn’t happen right away, but, as it has been so many times in Taurasi’s illustrious career, that grin was the tip of the iceberg portending a big Phoenix run.

The eight-seed Mystics led by as many as 13 points, buoyed by an opening quarter in which seven Mystics scored and the Mercury shot just 27% from the field. Guard Jacki Gemelos, making her first career playoff appearance at age 31, even nailed a 32-foot 3-pointer over Taurasi with seconds remaining in the quarter to put the Mystics on pace to score 100 points in the game.

In many ways, it felt like a continuation of the regular season for the Mystics, who won four games in a row just to make the playoffs. Center Alaina Coates called the winning streak “a huge confidence booster” entering the playoffs, and the Mystics had noticeably improved on both ends of the court compared to when they lost 12 of 13 games earlier in the season. Head coach Mike Thibault’s pregame message to the team was simple: “Go be who you’ve been.”

“When teams get in a momentum like this, it’s hard to stop,” Gemelos said before Tuesday’s game. “And I think that we are just in a mind frame right now and just a zone where we don’t feel like we can be beat. … I don’t know what the result is going to be, but I know that we’re locked in and I know that we’re ready.”

The Mystics stayed locked in and outplayed Phoenix for three quarters, leading 70-59 entering the final ten minutes. Three players—point guard Leilani Mitchell (18 points), forward Emma Meesseman (16), and guard Ariel Atkins (13)—were already in double figures, and the Mystics shot 47% from the field to Phoenix’s 39% up to that point. They even had 29 rebounds—3.5 more than they averaged in two full games against Phoenix in the regular season.

Mitchell goes in for the layup against the Phoenix Mercury on September 15, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The fourth quarter was a different story, as Phoenix went on a 17-0 run that lasted nearly five minutes and took them from 12 points down to five points up, 78-73, with 4:23 remaining. Mercury point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith had seven points during that run, and Taurasi hit the 3-pointer that pushed the lead to five.

“I think we kind of lost focus in defense,” Meesseman said. “You know in a game like that, when they’re behind, players like Diana Taurasi, one of the greatest players in the world, they’re gonna to step it up and try to take over this game and it’s kind of what happened.

“We had a game plan that was working for three quarters. … [But] you can’t just relax for a little bit, definitely not in playoffs. … It’s 40 minutes, 45 minutes if you need to.”

To their credit, the Mystics fought back, forced Phoenix into three straight turnovers in the last 70 seconds, and took an 84-82 lead with 5.8 seconds left. But it was for naught, as Mercury guard Shey Peddy hit the game-winning 3-pointer as time expired. Peddy won a championship with the Mystics last season and played half of the 2020 season with the team, but after Washington cut her for financial reasons, she moved on to the Mercury—even though Washington had intended to re-sign her.

“It’s a tough way to end the season, one of the tougher losses I’ve had since I’ve been in Washington,” Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said. “Just because I feel so bad for these players for how hard they worked, and they had a chance to win a huge game and advance. … For three quarters of the game, we were in control, and then all of a sudden, we weren’t.”

Thibault holds no ill will toward Peddy, but he couldn’t find a silver lining on Tuesday night. “I would like to see her make any other shot against anybody else, but not against us,” he said somberly.

Mitchell and Atkins both used the same word as their coach—“tough”—to describe the loss. “We played pretty well for the most part, and I thought we deserved to win,” Mitchell said. She lamented a late free throw that she missed that could have given the Mystics a three-point lead, saying, “Obviously, I feel terrible. [The loss is] gonna haunt me for a long time.”

Yet Mitchell was a major reason why the Mystics were in control of the game in the first three quarters, and she finished with a game-high 25 points on 5-for-7 shooting from behind the arc and added four assists. “She just was trying to will us to win,” Thibault said, and she nearly did.

Although the Mystics players and staff were devastated after the game, they were also able to appreciate the remarkable confluence of events that got them from eleventh place in the WNBA standings on September 3 to being 5.8 seconds away from advancing to the second round of the playoffs just 12 days later. It is even more impressive considering that four players, including 2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, were injured or opted out of the 2020 season before it began, and there were enough injuries and roster changes during the season that ESPN had to make an animated graphic in order to account for them all:

“We had a good run at the end of the season,” Meesseman said. “… It’s just hard that sometimes during the season, we would think, ‘Okay, we’re not gonna make the playoffs’ and then get to this point where we … were feeling during the game that we deserved to go to the next round, and then it ends on this way. So it’s gonna be a game that’s gonna stick with us for a long time.

“Nonetheless, I’m just really proud of our team, the way that we fought to try to find each other, to stick together. And we were here as one team. So I think what I’m gonna remember from this season is this feeling [of] how proud I am of my team.”

Meesseman admitted that the season was difficult for her on the court: she initially struggled to find her rhythm after a longer-than-expected offseason, and in mid-August, she suffered a shoulder sprain, which was her first WNBA injury in seven seasons. She shot 45% from the field for the season, her lowest percentage since her rookie year in 2013, but by her own estimation, she grew as a defender and a passer and learned a lot about coping with adversity.

Washington Mystics forward Emma Meesseman shoots the ball against the Los Angeles Sparks on September 10, 2020. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Mitchell said that it took time for the team to gel and to fully understand what Thibault was asking of them, and that she could have been more “demanding” early on as a veteran point guard. The team started 3-0, and “players are playing really well, and so you think they understand and they get it, but then when you really break things down, they’re still learning,” Mitchell said. In the second half of the season, she was more proactive in fixing issues on the court in real time, and she especially stepped up during the Mystics’ playoff push, averaging 11.3 points and 8.3 assists in the last six regular-season games.

“I think I did a better job of being more of a leader, making sure everyone’s on the same page, understanding that we are a really young team and I did have to speak up a little bit more, I did have to show a little more emotion and make sure we got ourselves going,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell and Meesseman, two of the more seasoned WNBA players on the roster, also praised the growth of younger players such as Atkins, forward Myisha Hines-Allen, and guard Kiara Leslie, who was tasked with guarding Taurasi for much of Tuesday night.

“I guess you’ve got to kind of put the season into perspective,” Mitchell said. “…A lot of players really grew up a lot this season, and I think we’ll be better for it next year.”

Even Thibault reflected on how he got better as a coach in his 18th WNBA season. “I think the reminder is that our first job as coaches is as teachers,” he said. “…Sometimes you kind of forget, and it is a business, but that feeling of watching people grow is why you get started in the first place.”

In the locker room after the game, the Mystics players and staff thanked each other for taking a leap of faith to come to the WNBA “bubble” in Florida and play in a season that had so many unknowns. The key, Atkins said, was “understanding that if we did it together, we’d be all right.” 

Minutes later, Atkins spoke to the media for the final time this season, and Mystics television analyst Christy Winters Scott asked her for one word to describe her team. She responded right away:

“The first thing that popped in my head when you asked that was ‘warriors,’ and I think of people who fight despite the circumstance. We came in here not knowing what we were going to get from day one. And even as time went along and things kind of went crazy, we just kept pushing.”

The 2020 Washington Mystics should be remembered as a team of fighters, one that overcame so many absences and injuries to leapfrog three teams en route to the WNBA playoffs. Dallas, Indiana, Atlanta—none of those teams could keep Washington out of the postseason, and in the end, only a former Mystic, Shey Peddy, could deliver the knockout blow to this group of warriors.

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. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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