Mystics Look to Get Back on Track vs. Fever

The month of July has not been kind to the Mystics.  Friday’s (7pm) matchup with the Fever (8-6) will mark nineteen days since Washington posted a win. On the other hand, the Fever have been scorching, triumphing to five straight wins since June 26th. The beginning of Washington’s woes actually came at the hands of the Fever on July 2nd, when Indiana topped the Mystics 73-50 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Washington (6-6) will look for the home court advantage to give the team an edge and hold back the unrelenting Fever.

Friday’s game will be the third meeting with their Eastern Conference foes this season, with each team looking to take the advantage in the now tied series.  The Mystics have fallen to fifth in the Eastern Conference, but sit just two games back of the first place Sky, while the Fever are fourth, just one game behind. Despite the better record overall, the Fever actually have one less conference win than Washington. The Mystics could reclaim a winning record with a victory against the Fever and rise above .500.

Though tinged by the pain of three straight losses, July has not been without its bright spots for the Mystics. Stefanie Dolson posted performances demonstrating she is on her way to a career season and Tierra Ruffin-Pratt embraced an increased role.

Dolson’s development was put into overdrive with the sudden injury to Kia Vaughn. Just in her sophomore season in the WNBA, Dolson has more than doubled her points per game from her rookie season and improved in every category across the board. The center has had back-to-back double-double games and kept the ‘Stics competitive in tough losses.

“She’s had a pretty good reaction to the pressure that’s been on her and she’s responded to it,” Thibault said. “I think she’s played like an All-Star.”

Ruffin-Pratt’s development has also been vital for the Mystics as she has stepped into a starting role. Averaging the most points and rebounds of her three-year career, TRP posted double figures in each of Washington’s last three games. Coach Thibault believes her injury at the end of last season was a “blessing in disguise,” allowing the forward to train all winter with the coaching staff and better her game.

“That was a big deal for her to get a lot of self-improvement in the off-season and she’s carried it over now into the season,” Thibault said. “[She]’s going to be a big key going forward for our team.”

Another key to break the losing streak will be to reignite Emma Meesseman offensively. Often the subject of team’s defensive aggression of late, Meesseman has found other ways to contribute averaging 6.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 steal in the last three games. Thibault recognizes the need for the team to space the floor well around her and make shots from beyond the perimeter to alleviate pressure in the post.

“It will help [Emma] when our perimeter players are making jump shots. When they make them it opens up the floor a little more,” Thibault said. “Teams right now are daring us to shoot the ball on the outside.”

Understandably so, as the team is averaging under 32% from beyond the arc. Rebounding has also been a thorn for the Mystics this season, a pain the Fever can relate to. Washington ranks seventh in the league on the boards, with the Fever slightly below at tenth.
“I guess it’s the two bad rebounding teams, who does a better job?” Thibault joked. “That’s been an emphasis for us, it’s been inconsistent. I think their coaches would probably say the same thing about theirs.”

The story of the early part of Washington’s season was the impressive depth, with another member of the bench having a breakthrough performance seemingly every night. Coach Thibault noted early that one of his biggest decisions as a coach this season would be deciding who to play. He stressed the importance of players needing to step up and take bigger roles for themselves by demonstrating their work and ability both in practice and on the court. Yet, the bench has struggled of late and Thibault has yet to see players vying for increased roles.

“It’s just been too inconsistent,” he said. “And it’s hard. I think people are trying to make that effort, but the ball isn’t going in the basket and ultimately you get judged by whether you make shots or not.”

If the bench can heat up, there is still one more obstacle on the path to victory. A key stop for the ‘Stics will be containing All-Star Tamika Catchings. This week, the forward was selected to the All-Star Game for a record 10th time. Catchings ranks 10th in the league with 7.5 rebounds per game and leads the Fever, along with Marissa Coleman, averaging 13.1 points. Catchings also ranks first in blocks and second in assists for Indiana. Although dominant offensively and on the boards, Catchings is second on her squad in turnovers proving with pressure she can be stopped.

With continued success from Dolson and Ruffin-Pratt, good spacing on the floor as a team, making threes and boards and alleviating pressure on Meesseman, victory is within reach for the ‘Stics. With five games remaining in July, there is time for Washington to be relentless, close out the month strong and set the tone for the second half of the season. Washington will once again play at home Sunday, taking on another Eastern Conference rival, the Sun, at 7 pm.