A familiar plot began unfolding for the Washington Mystics on Friday night.
They held a double-digit lead early in the second half, then suffered through a lull as the Detroit Shock whittled the deficit.
It seemed inevitable that the defending champions would outplay Washington in the fourth quarter and escape Verizon Center with a victory. But the Mystics avoided another fourth-quarter meltdown and held on to escape 70-66.
“It was kind of nice to finish well in the second quarter and the fourth quarter,” coach Julie Plank said. “Usually it’s the other way around for our team. We had a tough week of practice, which I thought we needed, and it was great to see people contribute off the bench.”
No reserve played a bigger role in Washington’s victory than Nakia Sanford, who had 14 points and eight rebounds. She won the battle down low with Detroit’s physical centers - 6-foot-3 Cheryl Ford and 6-6 Kara Braxton - by matching their rebound total during a 5-for-6 shooting night.
Sanford had a relatively quiet first half of the season but has put together big performances in two of the past three games. She had 16 points and six rebounds July 30 at New York and was the Mystics’ biggest weapon in the paint Friday.
“I’ve really been doing a lot of extra work on the court with [assistant coach Vicky Bullett]. She’s been channeling her post-player [skills] into me,” Sanford said. “I was a little tentative about a lot of things early on in the season, and I think just putting in the extra work makes a big difference.”
The Mystics emerged from a week of practice devoted almost entirely to defense with their stingiest effort in weeks. Only two Shock players scored in double figures, and the Mystics held Detroit star guards Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan - who historically torment Washington - to 8-for-23 shooting.
“It was a great team defensive game,” said guard Alana Beard, who had a game-high 15 points. “We got stops when we needed to get stops.”
The culprit in Washington’s past three losses, all to the Indiana Fever, has been critical breakdowns late in the game. But Friday night, the Mystics made the proper adjustments as the game went on. In the first half, Detroit gave Washington’s post players one-on-one shots. In the second half, Detroit clogged the lane and, instead of forcing the issue down low, the Mystics passed out of traffic. They had 18 assists on their 25 field goals.
And down the stretch, Washington came up with the critical plays. Monique Currie and Crystal Langhorne converted three-point plays on back-to-back possessions, each extending the Mystics’ lead to two possessions.
And on Detroit’s last play of the game, Langhorne blocked Taj McWilliams’ layup.
“We’ve been missing a great defensive effort,” Plank said. “In watching the film the first time around against them, we really had a sense of urgency, and I think our team responded really well.”
Note - Chasity Melvin hit the floor hard in the first quarter and crawled off the court writing in pain while covering her face. She re-entered at the start of the second quarter and played the rest of the game with goggles on.