Mitchell wanted the Mystics to take that to heart as they attempted to catch the Dallas Wings for the final playoff spot with the regular season ending Sunday. Washington took one step closer to that goal with a 75-58 win over the New York Liberty on Saturday.
“At the end of the day, if you say you play hard, that’s not really enough,” Mitchell said. “You’ve got to come and compete. I think we’ve responded really well. We’ve been competing. We’ve been improving. . . . This is what we hoped for at the beginning of the week, to be in control of our own destiny.
“You can go out and you can play hard, but to win close games and to win games when there’s more meaning to it, you have to raise the bar a little bit more. You don’t want to back down to anyone. We’re doing that for the most part.”
The Mystics (8-13) are now one victory or a Dallas Wings loss from locking up the final spot in the WNBA playoffs at the end of a tumultuous season that saw the team lose 12 of 13 games during a stretch. The Mystics, however, have matched a season-high three-game winning streak and have won four of five with everything on the line; they have been playing for their playoff lives for a week and a half.
The victory Saturday eliminated the Atlanta Dream (7-14) from the playoff hunt and left just the Mystics and Wings (7-14) standing. Washington faces the Dream on Sunday and a win sends Washington to the postseason for the fourth straight season and the seventh time in eight years. The last two trips to the playoffs resulted in a pair of Finals appearances, including the 2019 WNBA championship.
Things get tricky if the Mystics can’t defeat the Dream in the final game of the league’s regular season at 5 p.m. The Wings play the Liberty at noon, and a win plus a Mystics loss would send Dallas to the postseason.
There has been an abundance of smiles and energy on the court from the Mystics over this final stretch, and Mitchell said it’s more fun when the stakes are higher. No one questioned their work ethic during the troublesome stretches, but the team has clearly competed more with its season on the line. The Mystics have beaten three playoff teams during this run and played their best defense all season, which has led to better flow on offense and more opportunities for easy buckets.
Not everyone, however, agreed that this back-against-the-wall scenario has been enjoyable.
“I’ll be honest: It’s not fun,” Atkins said. “We don’t want to be in this situation. I wish we could have been in a different situation, but this is where we’re at. I’ve been talking about it all season. We put ourselves in this position, so now we’ve got to fight our way through.”
Washington never trailed against the Liberty, though it let the league’s last-place team hang around longer than it would have liked. An 11-0 run that wrapped around halftime gave the Mystics a 14-point lead that New York never truly recovered from. A fourth-quarter Liberty run cut a 20-point lead to 11, but the Mystics responded to cut off the rally. The Washington defense forced a season-high 26 turnovers, including a season-high 15 steals. Myisha Hines-Allen finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds while Atkins added 18 points, five rebounds and five steals. Mitchell scored 12 points and Emma Meesseman had an all-around line of eight points, seven assists and six rebounds.
Kia Nurse and Kiah Stokes both scored 15 for New York.
“We talked this week about put ourselves in a position to control our own fate,” Mystics Coach Mike Thibault said. “Now we control our own fate [Sunday]. It would be nice if Dallas lost at noon and we didn’t have to worry bout it, but I think it’s going to come down to one game to make the playoffs.
“I just think the grittiness to stay in the grind and keep working and see what happens [has been most impressive]. The theme at the start of the week … here’s what we’ve got to do. We might have to go win them all, so let’s go try to win them all. So far we’ve done that. … Given everything that’s happened, it’s a testament to their character to stay with it and give themselves an opportunity to control their own fate.”
The Mystics defeated the Dream, 98-91, just under a month ago, and Atlanta probably will be energized to play the roll of spoiler after Washington ended its playoff hopes Saturday. Washington will have its hands full with the backcourt of Chennedy Carter and Courtney Williams, while forward Betnijah Laney is considered a most improved player award candidate. Laney scored 35 in the first meeting between the teams, and Williams added 30. Carter did not play.
“They’re a nightmare to defend because of their quickness,” Thibault said. “They have two really quick guards who can penetrate and pull up off the dribble and make shots. This is a team, Atlanta, who along with us are probably among the most improved teams the last three weeks.”
Hines-Allen added: “Their guard play is phenomenal. We’ve just got to buckle down on the defensive end. . . . It’s do or die for us.”