September 18, 2021 

Eric Thibault shows off his head coaching chops in Mystics’ loss

Stepping in after Mike Thibault tested positive for COVID-19, the younger Thibault showed poise and tactical prowess in his head coaching debut

Being asked to clinch a playoff spot in your head coaching debut is a tall order for anyone—even Eric Thibault, the son of the winningest head coach in WNBA history.

Thibault, who is serving as the Washington Mystics’ acting head coach after longtime head coach Mike Thibault tested positive for COVID-19 this week, was asked to do that on Friday, when his eighth-place Mystics traveled to face the tenth-place New York Liberty. The Mystics could have secured their fifth straight playoff appearance with a win, while the Liberty needed a win over the Mystics to stay in contention for their first playoff appearance since 2017.

It didn’t go how the Mystics planned in a 91-80 loss, but by all accounts, Eric Thibault acquitted himself well in how he prepared and led his team.

“Eric did a great job today. It falls on us as the players of not buying into [the staff’s] game scheme and not buying into their game plan,” point guard Natasha Cloud said postgame. “So this loss isn’t on our staff or on the absence of Coach T. This is solely on us as the players.”

The Mystics trailed by 11 points after the first quarter, 18 after the second and as many as 24 in the third quarter before going on a 28-11 run to cut the lead to seven entering the fourth quarter. That renewed push wasn’t enough because the Liberty shot 51.6 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from 3-point range and got 40 points in the paint, prompting Cloud to sharply criticize her team’s defense postgame.

“We made them look like All-Stars,” she said. “I don’t think we took pride in individual matchups and knowing players’ tendencies … We just need to buy in defensively, because that was embarrassing.”

Part of the reason Cloud was quick to exonerate Thibault was the thoroughness with which he prepares for games. Forward Theresa Plaisance said on Thursday that Thibault “knows every team, every set that every team runs by name and hand call,” and as he has all season, he led the Mystics’ preparation in multiple ways this week: Not only did he help design a game plan, but the 34-year-old also simulated Liberty point guard Sabrina Ionescu as part of the Mystics’ scout team.

“He’s a pretty good point guard; I’m not even going to lie to you,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen said on Thursday. “… Eric’s pretty good at basketball. But I’ll give him the [edge in] coaching rather than the point guard spot.”

Thibault began his professional coaching career while in college by working for his father, who was then the head coach of the Connecticut Sun. He also spent several seasons in the college ranks before joining the Mystics in 2013 and was promoted to associate head coach in 2019.

He admitted before Friday’s game that he was nervous for his head coaching debut, but he had “peace of mind” knowing that his father was feeling well and his mother remained healthy. He projected that sense of calmness and continuity before and during the game, even helping players warm up like he had as associate head coach to ensure that their routines stayed consistent.

“It’s strange,” he said of the unexpected situation that elevated him into the head coach’s seat. “… It would have probably been more chaotic, right, if we had found out, like, this morning or something. But we had a couple of days to get ready.”

Wearing a red pullover, black pants and a black mask, his gestures and expressions during the game were similarly understated. He often had his arms loosely crossed as he watched the action, and when a questionable foul was called against his team in the first half, he merely turned away rather than getting worked up. He frequently communicated with his players on the bench and in huddles, but the only time he seemed to show frustration was with under a minute left in the game, when he bent down and slapped the court in response to a perceived missed call by the officials.

“They don’t need a lot of rah-rah from me,” Thibault said postgame. “Coach T doesn’t do a lot of rah-rah. We’re more of the trying to fix the problems that are in front of us [type of coaches].”

As a result, Thibault said he “had to call more timeouts than I would have liked” to try to stop New York’s runs, but he didn’t light into his team at halftime or postgame. He just offered solutions to what wasn’t working and let his players bring their own energy and motivation.

“Eric made some great adjustments to counter our switching and try to get the ball to Tina [Charles] and to Myisha in spots where they could give us trouble,” Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins said postgame. “… [Our] breakdowns didn’t cost us much in that first half, and in the second half they did.” Charles and Hines-Allen combined for 10 points and eight assists after halftime, compared to eight and two in the first half.

“E knows the game of basketball,” guard Ariel Atkins added. “… He’s vocal in every single one of our games and in practice. … Eric is who he is, he is good at what he does, he understands the game. He knows game plans. He knows how to get his players where he wants them. He can coach. So, I mean, as much as it is his first head game, it’s Eric Thibault. He’s been coaching since he was like 12.”

Eric Thibault reviews film with guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough (left) and forward-guard Elena Delle Donne (right) before Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals on Oct. 10, 2019. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra)

Thibault will get a second chance to get his first win as acting head coach—and the Mystics will get a second and final chance to clinch a playoff spot—against the Minnesota Lynx on Sunday. He said postgame that he wants the Mystics to have a better, more aggressive start than they did against the Liberty, and his meticulous preparation likely started before the Mystics’ bus, bound for DC late Friday night, even left the state of New York.

Looking back on his head coaching debut minutes after it ended, Thibault reflected on the challenge of knowing how much to intervene as the game unfolded. “The obvious thing is that it feels like it’s happening fast and you have to try to have an influence on it without overdoing it,” he said. “When they come out and they make shots and we make some mistakes, you feel responsible for doing something. I’m glad we responded well as the game went along, but … we can just execute a lot better. And I can try to help.”

For Hopkins, a contemporary of Thibault’s who is in only his second season as a head coach, Thibault’s debut was a sign of things to come in every way but the result.

“I’ve known for a long time Eric was going to be a really good head coach,” Hopkins said postgame. “He’s been doing this for a long time. He’s the son of one of the best to ever do it. Eric is more than ready. … So it doesn’t surprise me that they, with a first-time head coach, were able to weather the onslaught of that first half and come back and keep swinging at us. … But I think for him to step up in the midst of having his dad in the situation he’s in, in a must-win game, essentially, right, for that team, I can’t say enough about Eric.”

Additional reporting contributed by Howard Megdal and Jackie Powell.

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.

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