WNBA Playoffs Sidebar: Exit in Eastern Semis Leaves Mystics Looking to a Promising Future
By Rob Knox (@knoxrob1)
WASHINGTON --- Washington’s 81-76 setback in overtime to Indiana Saturday night in the second game of an Eastern Conference semifinal series ended its 2014 season and planted seeds for next year.
Quite possibly, this could be the start of something bigger for a talented and youthful Washington Mystic squad featuring seven first or second year players.
The Mystics were disappointed that their fine season ended abruptly at the hands of the experienced Fever, who won the 2012 WNBA title and has been involved in every imaginable playoff scenario known to man.
Heading into the offseason, this defeat will serve as fuel and motivation to enjoy a happier ending next season.
“We can take the experience from this playoff series into next year,” Washington rookie guard Bria Hartley said. “Now that we’ve been through it, we’re able to learn from it. I think it’s awesome to be part of this team because we know the future is bright for us.
"We have talented and young players that can be really big for this program. We’re going to work really hard to meet those expectations.”
Hartley and sister UConn rookie Stefanie Dolson played significant minutes this season.
Hartley started 29 games and scored in double figures 16 times this season. An ankle-breaking queen, Hartley she was one of many talented performers who enjoyed some great moments in the summer of 2014 .
She fired in a career-high 26 points against Seattle and had 20 points in an overtime win over the Los Angeles Sparks in June.
Second-year guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, who injured her shoulder in the second quarter and didn’t return, was a valuable contributor during the season. She scored a career-high 18 points to lead the Mystics to a road win in Los Angeles and cap a winning road trip in mid-July.
Second-year forward Tianna Hawkins, who arrived from Seattle in a draft-day trade with Hartley, did everything she could to extend the Mystics’ season with 13 points, including nine straight in the fourth quarter as they opened a 62-57 lead with 3 minutes, 55 seconds remaining.
Emma Meesseman, who would be a senior in college at 21 years old, is gifted beyond her years. She grabbed 10 rebounds to lead the Mystics Saturday.
Rookie Jelena Milovanovic and second-year guard Tayler Hill are expected to play bigger roles next season for Washington.
“Over the course of the season, everyone can agree that we learned a lot and improved as a team,” Hawkins said. “We’re all looking forward to next year because we have a lot to prove.
"We’re all going to come back stronger. We can look at the close games we had this year and fine tune the small things that made a difference in us winning and losing, including in the game tonight.”
The young and gritty Mystics made the Fever earn the series.
In two years, Mystics coach Mike Thibault has rebuilt a struggling franchise and offered fans a fun and entertaining team that will continue to evolve into one of the league’s elite.
Former Duke star Monique Currie is the only remaining player Thibault inherited when he took the job at the end of the 2012 season.
He’s sprinkled in veterans Kia Vaughn, Ivory Latta, Kara Lawson and Kalena Greene to provide leadership, stability and experience.
The Mystics have qualified for the playoffs in consecutive years for only the second time in franchise history.
However, they are ready to take the next step especially considering the Mystics haven’t won a playoff series since beating the defunct Charlotte Sting in the opening round of the 2002 playoffs.
“We are kind of still learning who we are as a team," Thibault said.
"I am still learning who some of our players are as a team and what they can do best and what they can’t," he continued.
"It is easy to say well you had all season but my experience is that 34 games is a very short time when you have that many young players.
"In the NBA, 34 games is not even half the season. I think we have made progress but we still have a long way to go too. I think we have things that we are encouraged about. I am glad we made this series competitive and it went to the wire again, but this one we gave back tonight.”
Count Indiana Hall of Fame coach Lin Dunn as a believer in the Mystics potential and promise.
“This is an awfully young team,” Dunn said of the Mystics. “Except for Kara Lawson, they’re almost babies in some ways.
"You got [Hartley and Dolson] playing an awful lot of minutes. You got Ivory that’s still a young player," she noted.
" Mike [Thibault] has done a great job. They could have easily stolen that game from us tonight. You have to give him credit with what he’s doing with a very young team and I give him credit for letting them all play.
"He lets them play through their mistakes, which is something I don’t think I could do. He’s more patient than I am.”
Washington displayed plenty of heart in storming back from a nine-point third quarter deficit and a pair of early four-point holes early in overtime.
While their effort would have beaten a lesser team, the experienced Fever just didn’t crumble thanks to Tamika Catchings’ 26-point performance and the all-around brilliance of Briann January, who scored 13 points and handed out seven assists.
So the Mystics may be headed home sooner than expected, but they are also better and stronger for the experience of competing against the Fever in two tight games decided late.
They will return and continue climbing. Lawson made it clear that experience wasn’t the reason that the Mystics lost.
“We don’t look at our youth as a reason why we lost tonight, but we do look at it as what a bright future our group has,” Lawson said. “All of our young players are positive, hungry and really want to be good in this league.
"As a veteran on this team, I am excited to play with them for a little bit and then I’ll be excited to watch them when I am done playing.”
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