Contrary to the widely-accepted sports axiom, the Washington Mystics hope the playoffs is not an entirely different season altogether – especially given their continued dominance over the WNBA’s best team, the New York Liberty.
Ivory Latta and Emma Meesseman combined to produce game-tying baskets in regulation and in overtime as the Washington Mystics once again took down Liberty, 86-83 in double overtime to move to within one game from reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 13 years.
Including the regular season, the Mystics have now won four of five meetings with the Liberty, with this particular victory – in front of a boisterous Madison Square Garden crowd – easily the most important.
“We haven’t been intimidated by playing here because we had some success earlier in the year and I think that helped us,” said second-year head Mystics coach Mike Thibault, the WNBA’s all-time winningest head coach. “If we had not won in this building before, maybe it would be different. But I think a lot of players like the bright lights and the big stage, but some have a tough time with it.”
Latta, the former All-America at the University of North Carolina, is used to thriving in the spotlight, hitting clutch, game-winning shots time and again since here college days, and she was on hand to bail out the Mystics after Tina Charles’ breakaway layup gave New York a 69-66 lead with 36.6 seconds left in regulation. Utilizing a two-man game on the perimeter, Meesseman fed Latta, who buried a right-wing three to tie the game at 69 with 27.7 seconds in regulation.
“[Coach Thibault] told me, ‘Hey! I have confidence in you and I know you’ll knock it down,'” said Latta, who led the team with 15 points, nine coming after halftime. “We ran the play, I saw that a defender wasn’t there, so I just took my time and focused on making the shot.”
On the ensuing Liberty possession, Charles drove across the lane to hit a running hook, but her shot came just after the shot clock expired, ruling out the potential game-winner. The officials reviewed the play and confirmed the call on the floor.
New York once again built their lead to four with under a minute left in the overtime. After Tayler Hill made two free throws to cut the lead to two, Washington forced a miss from Charles on the other end and had a chance to tie or win on their final possession of overtime . Latta was stripped of the ball while coming up the court by Tanisha Wright, and the two players tied up the basketball while on the floor, forcing a jump ball. Washington gained possession after Swin Cash committed a violation on the jump ball, then Latta, while driving to the basket, found Meesseman inside and the Belgian converted her running layup with 1.6 seconds left in overtime to force the second extra session.
Not only did the Liberty let a two-possession lead slip in overtime, they also missed three of their six free throws in the first extra session.
“Missed free throws – that was one of our big downfalls,” said Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer, who was presented the 2015 WNBA Coach of the Year Award prior to the contest. “We missed some free throws and did not make the big shots.”
Wright hit a big three-pointer to start the scoring in the second overtime for the Liberty, but the Mystics answered with a 9-1 to put the game out of reach. Layups on consecutive possessions by Meesseman and Kara Lawson gave Washington the lead that that they would not relinquish, and the Mystics four of six free throws to see off the Liberty. Meeseeman ended the game with her fourth double-double of the season, with 13 points to go along with 10 rebounds.
“Overall, no one said that it was going to be easy,” said Laimbeer. “We got beat at home, now we have to win on the road. We’re the best road team in the league, and now we just have to go and show it.”
New York’s home form this season was also stellar, and the sold-out crowd of over 10,000 spectators helped the Liberty race out to an 18-8 lead on their way to taking a seven-point lead at the end of the first quarter. New York’s two local stars, the Queens-raised Charles and Brooklyn-raised Epiphanny Prince, scored 16 of the team’s 21 first-quarter points. Prince ended up leading the team with 26 points, while Charles chipped in 22, though she only made 10 of her 27 field goal attempts.
Washington chipped away at the lead immediately, gaining the lead at 30-28 on Meesseman’s conventional three-point play.
The contest featured 14 ties and 23 lead changes, and after a Latta three-pointer at the 8:53 mark of the second quarter to cut New York’s lead to 23-19, neither team possessed a lead of greater than four points until there were 9.8 seconds left in the second overtime, when Latta’s two free throws sealed the game and gave Washington an 85-80 advantage.
Both teams head to the Verizon Center for Sunday’s Game 2, where the Mystics look to make only their second-ever Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Washington defeated the Charlotte Sting in a first-round series in 2002 for their only other playoff series win in franchise history.
[Cover photo (Ivory Latta) courtesy of Craig Ruttle/AP]