WNBA: Youth Has Served Washington Well to Send Mystics to Three Straight Playoff Appearances
WASHINGTON -- Natasha Cloud’s memorable 2015 is about to get better as she prepares for her first taste of playoff action when the fourth-seeded Washington Mystics meet the top-seeded New York Liberty Friday night at Madison Square Garden in the first game of a best of three Eastern Conference semifinal.
The game starts at 7:00 p.m. on NBA-TV.
This will be the team’s third straight trip to the playoffs under the leadership of general manager and head coach Mike Thibault.
It is also the first playoff meeting between the Liberty and Mystics since a thrilling 2002 Eastern Conference final series won in three games by New York.
Cloud made an immediate impact on the Mystics success this season.
With the Saint Joseph’s product leading her rookie class and finishing second on the team in assists per game (3.4), the Mystics set franchise records for most assists in a season (606), assists averaged in a game (17.82) and most assists in a game (30) against the San Antonio Stars on July 31.
Other franchise records for the Mystics this season included fewest turnovers in a game (five) against the Chicago Sky on August 2 and most blocked shots per game (4.8).
Cloud led the Mystics in assists in 13 games this season which included a career high 11 in their matchup against the Los Angeles Sparks on September 3.
Her court vision and play-making ability will be crucial as she’ll be matched against experienced guards Tanisha Wright out of Penn State and Epiphany Prince out of Rutgers during the next few days.
“We’re looking forward to Friday night,” Cloud said Sunday afternoon following the Mystics regular season finale against the Dream. “We just have to put all of the pieces together.
"It’s been a surreal feeling to be able to contribute this season. We have to stick to what we do best as a team if we’re going to get past New York.”
During the season, Cloud handed out at least five assists in a game seven times.
One of her best stretches of basketball was during the Mystics five-game winning streak in late July where she had 28 assists against one turnover.
That’s a pretty impressive number even for a seasoned veteran, but for a rookie to do that says something special about the six-foot Cloud, who started 22 games and averaged 19.3 minutes.
Cloud, a Cardinal O'Hara grad from Broomall, Pa., in the Philly western suburbs also demonstrated her Delco toughness when she had a tooth knocked out of her mouth during a game against Seattle.
She missed a few minutes of game action, but eventually returned to the contest.
Cloud, who has been thankful to contribute and play a critical role in the Mystics success this season, is one of the few players who have played every game since arriving in D.C. after being picked in the second round.
Washington is still relatively young as it features seven players who have three or fewer years of experience.
“We’re the youngest team in our conference in the playoffs,” Thibault said. “So hopefully playing in some of these (close) games we’ve played in this season will help prepare our young ones.
"It’s a little scary sometimes as a coach to look out there and see four players out there with three years or less of experience. Then you’re looking at teams that have had players play in the WNBA Finals and know how to do that.”
The Mystics rookie class of 2013 – Emma Meesseman, Tayler Hill and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt – had standout seasons this year.
Meesseman was the only player for the second consecutive year to start in all 34 regular season games.
An All-Star, Meesseman finished second on the team in scoring with 11.6 points per game and first in rebounds with 6.3 per game along with three doubles-doubles.
She posted a career high 24 points in the Mystics matchup against the Tulsa Shock on June 19.
Hill posted a career high of her own with a 20 point performance against Connecticut on August 9. She saw action in 32 games this season and finished fifth on the team in scoring (7.5 points per game). She scored in double figures nine times this season.
Ruffin-Pratt started in 31 out of 32 games played and also had a career high performance scoring 20 points in their victory over the Los Angeles Sparks on June 23.
A candidate for all-defensive team, Ruffin-Pratt averaged 23.9 minutes per game and 7.4 points per game in the regular season.
“That’s part of the growing up process,” Thibault said. “You have to go through it to be prepared and be better at it.
"I hope that last year’s playoff experience will help Emma, Stef and TRP be more prepared. I remember going through that at Connecticut with young players. You just have to go through it a couple of times. Now we may be more ready for it now than we were a year ago.”
Hill played sparingly in last year’s playoff series against Indiana.
Ruffin-Pratt left Game Two early with a shoulder injury in a contest the Mystics dropped in overtime.
Second-year players Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson, both UConn products, saw significant action against the Fever in last season’s playoff series.
“The last two years we have been in the playoffs but, we have not gone as far as we’ve wanted to,” Dolson said. “We want the team to go far this year.
"With the chemistry we have as a team, we are excited for the playoffs and we know we can do well as long as we play our game. I think we are all just ready and anxious for practices and the games to start.”
The Mystics will have a full roster heading to New York.
Kara Lawson, who missed the final eight regular season games, is expected to play.
She’ll be able to provide leadership and experience along with Ivory Latta, the Mystics’ leading scorer at 11.2 points per game. Latoya Sanders and Arminite Herrington also provide experience for the Mystics.
The second game of the series will be at the Verizon Center Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN with Pam Ward and Carolyn Peck on the call and LaChina Robinson reporting.
If a third game is needed, it will be back in New York on Tuesday night on ESPN2.
“Playoff basketball is completely different than the regular season,” Dolson said. “It is more physical. The stars on each team are going to be on the ball way more. We just have to be ready and go in mentally prepared for what they are going to throw at us. We just have to be focused on every possession.”
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