With multiple weapons, Washington Mystics ready to live up to championship expectations

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WASHINGTON – The Sunday night before the Washington Mystics held media day, the team watched a video of the Seattle Storm celebrating a third WNBA title after beating the Mystics at nearby George Mason University. Seattle swept Washington in the finals last year, denying the Mystics the chance to win a league championship for the first time.

“It’s kind of good to get that feeling again, that pit in your stomach,” Mystics forward Elena Delle Donne commented about re-watching the game. “[The feeling of] not wanting that to ever happen again.”

“Run it back” is the motto for the Mystics this year. Expectations are high and Washington is no longer the best-kept secret of the WNBA. Now, the Mystics will “run things back” to push themselves forward, utilizing last season’s lessons for success in the 2019 season.

“I think more than anything you just learn the ups and downs you go through in a season,” head coach Mike Thibault said. “It’ll be better for them to not walk in a situation where they’re comfortable with their teammates, they know where they fit in.”

During the offseason, the Mystics waved goodbye to Capitol One Arena as their home court and moved to Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southeast D.C. The move signifies a shift in the fan experience for the Mystics.

Capitol One Arena seats 20,356 fans. It did not capture the essence of the thousands who attended games. The spacious venue lacked ear-ringing acoustics and intimate experiences for fans to engage with the game. Entertainment and Sports Arena’s space, with 4,200 seats, can be argued as the Mystics’ first home court advantage. Relocating to a smaller venue improves the intensity of the game experience, creating a disruptive environment for opponents yet fueling Washington’s performance.

“The atmosphere is going to be great,” Thibault said. ” We haven’t really ever had a home court advantage that some teams in our league have. Now we have the fans on top of us. They can intimidate opponents a little. Knowing we’re going to be in our own building all the time just helps build daily routine and preparations.”

Delle Donne plus guards Natasha Cloud and Kristi Toliver are the veteran core for the Mystics. The experienced veterans continue to carry the torch on Washington’s bread and butter of perimeter shooting, while adding a defensive battle to tie teams down.

Toliver expanded her basketball resume, taking an assistant coaching job with the NBA’s Washington Wizards in the offseason. Watching, learning and doing have always been Toliver’s ways to improve. She looks to implement more than just a sharpened basketball IQ.

“For me to be around that every single day is special,” Toliver said. “It’ll help me a lot. I was able to work with the [Wizards] player development staff.”

Eleven players return to Washington’s roster, healthy in a season where health equals depth. Many notable players around the league are out of commission, taking a toll on top contenders. Seattle Storm’s 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart will miss the season with a ruptured right Achilles tendon and Phoenix Mercury’s guard Diana Taurasi is expected to miss 10-12 weeks after back surgery for a disc protrusion. Delle Donne encourages the challenge of being the targeted favorites.

“It means you’re good,” she said. “You don’t always want to be the underdog. You want to know that you’ve earned being at the top and people are coming for you.”

The 2015 MVP anchored the Mystics’ performance throughout the season. Last summer was another MVP-worthy clinic from Delle Donne. She finished top-ten in rebounds, fifth in scoring at 21 points per game and was the best free throw shooter in the league. She enters her third year with Washington, and things look brighter than ever.

“I need to continue being a leader and a voice for this team,” Delle Donne said. “We’ve got a great core that can bring this bunch along.”

Delle Donne played sparingly in the WNBA Finals. She sustained a right knee injury in the semifinal round against the Atlanta Dream, flustering the Mystics’ usual sharp shooting and rim protection against Seattle in the finals.

Another noticeable absence from Washington’s postseason lineup was Belgian forward Emma Meesseman who missed the 2018 season. Her time away from WNBA play was necessary. In her seven years as a pro, she flip-flopped between Belgium’s national team, Russia’s UMMC Ekaterinburg and the Mystics. Things evolved in her absence.

Delle Donne was in her first season with the Mystics before Meesseman’s hiatus. Washington has depth with LaToya Sanders, who is efficient at the rim, along with dynamic young athletes like forwards Aerial Powers and Myisha Hines-Allen and guard Ariel Atkins.

“I can feel that we were in the Finals,” Meesseman said on the team’s atmosphere. “Everybody is ready to start already and trying to prove we can win this. It’s a feeling. A year is a long time to miss on a team.”

But now she’s back. Meesseman was a top three-point shooter in the WNBA before her break. With Meeseeman and Delle Donne together for a height and versatility advantage, the Mystics have a chance to up the ante in their success.

Thibault can explore with diverse line ups, including a towering attack from both Meesseman and Delle Donne on the floor, committing to Washington’s positionless and poised style of play.

“It was glaring when Elena went down,” Thibault said on Meesseman’s absence. “That in itself showed how valuable [Meesseman] is. It allows us to play all kinds of lineups. We can cause different problems. She has a lot to offer.”

Meesseman will leave the Mystics for the Belgium national team for three weeks to compete in the 2019 FIBA EuroBasket competition from late June to early July in Latvia, Serbia.

Washington selected North Carolina State guard Kiara Leslie as the overall tenth pick in the 2019 draft. Leslie started her collegiate career not far from Washington, playing as a Terrapin at Maryland until an injury forced her to sit out the 2016-2017 season. She transferred to North Carolina State as a graduate student-athlete.

The Wolfpack managed success under Leslie, being the last undefeated team in the NCAA regular season and appearing in back to back Sweet Sixteens. She finished her two seasons off as the leading scorer with 15 points per game accompanied by seven rebounds and 96 assists per contest. From three-point land, she shot 38 percent and played in all 34 games her last season. Leslie’s versatility fits into Washington’s positionless style of play.

The Mystics picked up Louisville forward Sam Fuehring in the third round. Fuehring was an explosive scorer and defender for the Cardinals. Her playing style complemented the fierce intensity and sharp shooting of teammate and second overall pick Asia Durr, and it foreshadows an advantage as she performs with top scorers in the league like Meesseman, Delle Donne and Toliver this season.

“We don’t need our draft picks to come in and be saviors for us,” Thibault said. “They just need to try and fit in. She and Sam are used to winning. They have that mindset, so I think they’ll fit in.”

The New Jersey native joins former Louisville teammate Hines-Allen on Washington’s roster. Hines-Allen looks to soothe the transition into the league for Fuehring. The duo spelled defensive trouble for most teams, as Hines-Allen’s restrictive defense trickled into her rookie performances last season.

“I’m really excited to see her grow,” Hines-Allen said about Fuehring. “She knows what she needs to do. It’s no secret on what Coach T wants, so if she doesn’t put pressure on herself, I think she’ll do perfectly fine.”

Washington has two preseason matchups on the road against the Maya Moore-less Minnesota Lynx and Atlanta Dream before starting the season on the road against the Connecticut Sun. They will break in the court at their new home in Southeast June 1 against the Dream.

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