Matee Ajavon, capable of orchestrating comebacks all on her own, is one of the most exciting players on the Washington Mystics.
Her teammates were probably not surprised when she made a crazy shot from beyond the arc to end the third quarter Thursday night against Phoenix, nor were they shocked when she chose to take another crazy three after almost simultaneously feeling a tug on her shorts from DeWanna Bonner with 4.5 seconds remaining in the fourth.
A whistle sounded for a foul on Bonner, the shot went in and the Verizon Center crowd immediately erupted, thinking that Ajavon had just tied the game at 99-99. Multiple Mystics players started signaling for an “and one.”
But it was ruled a non-shooting foul so instead of Ajavon going to the line with a chance to give Washington a one-point lead, Matee was forced to intentionally miss the second of her two free throws. She then fouled Bonner, who made her seventh and eighth free throws of the final 23.6 seconds, sealing a 101-97 victory for the Mercury in Washington, D.C.
“I haven’t watched that play yet so I don’t know,” Mystic head coach Mike Thibault said of Ajavon’s shot at the postgame press conference. “I know that the official put their hand up for a shot attempt when she shot it and I didn’t hear a whistle until that happened, so we’ll look at it and see.
“Fact of the matter is though, they ended up with five players in double figures and one more with nine. They scored 50 something in the second half and shot over 50 percent in the second half…We needed a couple more defensive stops and we didn’t get them.”
“One shot doesn’t determine a game,” Ajavon said. “Obviously if I made it, it probably would have,” she added with a little tongue-in-cheek tone. “But we just gotta take away from the little things that we didn’t do like missed block outs and stuff like that. We gotta be ready to play tomorrow.”
The Mercury won this game because the Mystics (4-5) were unable to force the ball into anybody other than Bonner’s hands down the stretch. DeWanna scored 13 of her 22 points in the fourth and went 10-10 from the line in that quarter, including her eight makes in under 30 seconds to ice the game. Bonner, an 85.6 percent career free throw shooter, is shooting 53-57 (93.0 percent) from the line so far this year and has now made 21 consecutive free throws.
To be fair, however, it’s not like the Mystics had many other options to force the ball to, even if they could have forced it there. The Mercury are shooting 85.6 percent from the line this year as a team. That’s higher than last year’s WNBA leader in that category, the Connecticut Sun, who shot 82.7 percent.
Phoenix also would not have won Thursday night without the heroics of Diana Taurasi. Taurasi led Phoenix with 26 points, one less than Washington’s Crystal Langhorne who fell four points shy of her career-high with 27. Langhorne’s 12-13 effort from the field was impressive, but Taurasi made a game-high four threes, which all seemed to come at inopportune times for the Mystics, who were trying unsuccessfully to pull away all game long.
Diana was fouled on her first made three and successfully converted the four-point play to cut Washington’s lead to five. Her second three also cut the lead to five, her third cut it to two and her last one cut it to three with 1:21 remaining in the third quarter.
“I think it was a tough road win,” Taurasi said. “And these are hard, especially when you come all the way to the East. [The Mystics] are really tough to guard and they gave us a lot of problems, but we stuck with it the whole 40 minutes and we grinded out a good win.”
“It’s tough,” Langhorne said of not being able to keep the lead. “Diana’s a great player so you just kind of have to come back with stuff and I felt like we had too many breakdowns, missed block outs, things like that.”
And it has to be tough for the Mystics, knowing that all four of their best scorers were in double figures and they still lost. Ajavon and Currie were good for 17 apiece, while Ivory Latta chipped in with 12. It was the first time all season that those three and Langhorne all broke double digits in the scoring column in the same game.
The Mystics even got another solid performance out of Tayler Hill, who scored nine points on 4-8 shooting from the field in just 13 minutes.
But, as Thibault pointed out, Phoenix got contributions from a lot of different players as well. Candice Dupree had 16 points, while Charde Houston and No. 1 overall pick Brittney Griner each had 11 and Brianna Gilbreath added nine.
For Griner, it was a step back after back-to-back 20-point performances in her previous two games. But at least she helped the Mercury secure their sixth win in seven games and improve to 6-4. After all that hype about Minnesota, L.A. and Phoenix, you have to admit that those three teams are indeed the top three teams in the West so far based on their records.
Meanwhile, the East is a little bit harder to read. Connecticut and Indiana have been plagued with injuries, but it is difficult to sleep on them after the success they both had last year. On the other end of the spectrum, Atlanta seems to be for real, but it remains to be seen who their greatest challenger will be.
Diana Taurasi for one, in a postgame interview with Mystics sideline reporter Casey Phillips, stated her belief that Washington is going to have a say in who comes out of the East.
Every player is going to be respectful and complimentary of the opponent they just played, but perhaps Taurasi’s prediction has some merit. The Mystics outplayed a great team for most of Thursday night and are left staring at a box score that reads: “Biggest Lead: Mercury 4, Mystics 12.”
“We gotta close out games,” Ajavon said. “I think we played well throughout the game. But we had some missed opportunities and we just can’t let that happen.”