June 13, 2024 

‘We got the lid off’: Washington Mystics relieved to end 0-12 start

And Brittney Sykes returns — then departs with another injury

With less than a minute left in the Washington Mystics’ win over the Atlanta Dream on Tuesday, forward Myisha Hines-Allen and center/forward Shakira Austin laughed together on the sidelines, Hines-Allen holding a towel to wipe away sweat after playing 21 minutes.

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Just before the buzzer went off to make the 87-68 win official, point guard Julie Vanloo put two fists in the air, then hopped back and forth in an impromptu dance.

And when the team huddled on the court after shaking the Dream players’ hands, wing DiDi Richards tilted her head upward and shouted in celebration.

Tuesday’s win ended an 0-12 start to the season for the Mystics — the longest winless streak to start a season in franchise history and the fourth-longest in WNBA history.

“I would have taken a kicked-ball, halfcourt shot [for the win],” Mystics head coach Eric Thibault told reporters afterward. “It did not matter.”

“It feels really good,” guard Ariel Atkins told reporters postgame. “Obviously, we’ve been itching to get a win. … Some people are gonna be like, ‘You didn’t win a championship.’ We don’t care. We got the lid off. We got our first [win], and we did it together.”

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The Mystics had come close to winning several times, losing nine games by single digits and six by two possessions or fewer. They led after the third quarter five times, but they could never quite close the deal.

Washington has struggled offensively for most of the season, but the offense has looked better in recent games. After Sunday’s game against the New York Liberty, Thibault said it was the Mystics’ best offensive showing of the season, as they scored a season-high 88 points. (In fact, their top three scoring outputs have come in the past three games.) He was also pleased with their progress in limiting turnovers, especially late in the shot clock, and moving the ball to relieve pressure.

“We’re becoming a better basketball team,” Thibault said on Sunday. “We’re putting longer stretches of the game together. … The only way that this goes backwards is if we get discouraged. … So you’re just fighting human nature. It’s very frustrating. But we got to see that we’re getting better in a lot of areas, and if we keep on that path, we’re going to win games.”

Despite their losing streak, the Mystics were above average offensively in two key areas. Entering Tuesday, they ranked fourth in the WNBA in 3-point shooting percentage on a relatively high volume of attempts, and they were second in assist rate, assisting on 74.7% of their made baskets. Those strengths foreshadowed how they would get their first win.

On Tuesday, the Mystics made a season-high 17 3-pointers on just 31 attempts, for a 54.8% shooting percentage. That’s one made three shy of the WNBA record and the third-best shooting percentage in WNBA history when a team takes at least 30 threes. They also assisted on 25 of their 31 field goals (80.6%).

In addition, the Mystics had just 11 turnovers, well below their average, and they outrebounded the Dream after losing that battle when the teams first met on May 29.

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The Mystics got off to a fast start on Tuesday, hitting seven of 11 3-point attempts and leading by 10 points after the first quarter. And they kept pushing, even going on a 17-7 run spanning the last two quarters.

“We have been playing well and we have been having good starts and we have been having leads,” Vanloo told reporters postgame. “It was just the fact that we always had a breakdown during the game, and I feel like now we did it for four quarters. … We learned from our mistakes.”

The Mystics were led by point guard Brittney Sykes and Atkins, who each finished with a game-high 18 points. Sykes added four assists and three rebounds while hitting four of her six 3-pointers. Her production came in just 14:28, before she suffered a foot injury early in the fourth quarter. Atkins shot 6-for-10 from the field, including 3-for-3 from behind the arc, and had five assists and four rebounds.

Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes dribbles the ball with her right hand. Center Stefanie Dolson stands on the perimeter, facing the opposite way but turning her head to watch Sykes.
Washington Mystics guard Brittney Sykes (20) dribbles the ball during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on May 17, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Sykes returned to the lineup on Tuesday after missing 10 straight games with a left ankle injury. She gives the Mystics another ballhandler and is one of the league’s biggest threats in transition and driving to the rim. She is also a perennial WNBA All-Defense selection, often guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player.

The team had been particularly careful with Sykes’ rehab because her game is built around quickness, agility and shiftiness, all of which put a big load on ankles. But Thibault saw her familiar burst come back late in the previous week. When he told the team on Tuesday morning that she’d play, her teammates applauded, knowing how much of a boost she gives them.

“I honestly didn’t know how it was gonna go,” Thibault said postgame. “I thought maybe there’d be a little rust, and … [she’s] usually not short of intensity anyway, so I was worried it was gonna be like letting a bull out of the cage or something. But she played with good poise [and] kept the game simple.”

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Sykes looked like her old self right away, taking two shots within the first minute. “I was glad on the first play of the game she shot it,” Thibault said. “Even though she missed it, she got a good look and … got it out of her system.”

She made her first shot less than a minute later, driving with her right hand all the way from the 3-point line to the rim for a layup. Soon after that, Sykes skied to grab a defensive rebound, pulling it down with one hand as 6’1 Atlanta guard Haley Jones tried to get it from behind. Atkins cited that leaping ability and lack of hesitation as the most impressive parts of Sykes’ return.

Late in the third quarter, Sykes might’ve had her most athletic play of the game. Hines-Allen quickly passed a defensive rebound to Vanloo, who took three dribbles up the court as Sykes ran in transition. Then Vanloo threaded a long bounce pass to Sykes, who caught it in stride and finished the layup through contact from Atlanta forward Nia Coffey.

“When she did that, it was just amazing,” Vanloo said. “… [When] she sprints that full court, nobody can stop her, so she was really great. It’s a spark that we needed.”

“Sometimes it’s nice … for somebody to be able to put on the jets and get to the rim and get you a cheap two,” Thibault said before the game. He was talking more about Sykes’ role in halfcourt offense, but it was prophetic of Sykes’ ability in transition, too. “We’ve probably missed the cheap points that she gets us more than anything.”

Sykes nearly repeated the play on the next possession, but this time, she took care of both the defensive rebound and the pinpoint pass, and Hines-Allen converted the layup.

Early in the fourth quarter, Sykes got hot from 3-point range, hitting two in 36 seconds. “Turbo mode,” broadcaster Christy Winters-Scott called it on the air. But about 30 seconds later, Sykes landed awkwardly on her left foot as she drove to the basket and exited the game with a slight limp.

Though the Mystics didn’t think the injury was serious at the time, they were cautious, holding her out the rest of the game. But after initial testing in Washington, Thibault told reporters on Thursday that Sykes will be out for “probably the immediate future.”

“I think we may have dodged any long-, long-term injury,” Thibault said, adding that he doesn’t think she has a broken bone. “[But] yeah, just sucks. … It kind of went the way we wanted of being able to reintegrate her into the team that was playing well and moving the ball and had good timing and spacing. So we just got to keep on that trend.”

Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins stands on two feet, holding the ball on the right side of her body, as she looks cross-court for a possible pass.
Washington Mystics guard Ariel Atkins (7) looks to pass during a game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on June 4, 2024. (Photo credit: Chris Poss / The Next)

Meanwhile, Atkins had an up-and-down start to the season while Sykes was sidelined. The 2021 Olympian shot 25% or worse from the field in three of her first six games, including a career-worst 0-for-12 performance against Seattle on May 25. Overall, she is shooting a career-low percentage on midrange shots, which she has said are her bread and butter.

Atkins has also taken on more point guard responsibilities this season, especially with Sykes out. She has the highest assist rate of her career — but also the highest turnover rate.

However, there are some indications that Atkins is starting to settle in. She has scored in double figures in her past four games and shot 50% or better from the field in her last two. And she has had five assists and decreased her turnovers in each of the past three games, to just one on Tuesday.

“I think she did one hell of a job today with picking her shots and her passes,” Vanloo said postgame, then turned to Atkins to continue her thought. “I feel like you passed so well today; you really took smart decisions. I feel like you really [were] on top of your game also [with] leadership, scoring and passing. I thought it was amazing, really.”

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In the locker room after the game, Thibault gave Atkins the team’s commemorative hard hat, which is awarded after victories to someone who makes winning plays. He credited the seventh-year pro with leading the team through its losing streak, something he also praised her for to reporters before the game.

“She did a good job, I think, managing the frustration of herself and our team,” Thibault said pregame. “… We were in flux right off the jump with injuries and stuff, and whether she’s played well or played not as well, she’s been a very steadying presence.”

After the final buzzer sounded on Tuesday, the Mystics felt a mixture of joy and relief. There was happiness and celebration, Vanloo said, after they’d felt so crushed every other time they’d walked back to the locker room. And there was relief, Thibault said, because the losing streak was “a lot to hang over your head for a few weeks.”

But Tuesday’s game can’t only be the end of something, he insisted. Now that the streak can hit the dustbin, no longer a daily point of discussion, this has to be the start of something new — even though the Mystics will again be without Sykes for a while.

“I hope we see the opportunity that’s in front of us,” Thibault said. “We can take a breath, but it shouldn’t be like a total release. [It] should light a little fire under us now to go get some more.”

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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