- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2018

The jubilation might have begun when Kristi Toliver waved two hands toward herself to celebrate a long third quarter 3-pointer. Washington Mystics fans ate it up, perhaps not knowing that even more offensive firepower was ahead.

It was during one of the last timeouts of the game that they really screamed, an appropriate reward for the dominance they’d witnessed.

The Mystics advanced to the semifinals of the WNBA playoffs for the second straight season by dominating the Los Angeles Sparks, 96-64, Thursday evening. Washington, the No. 3 seed, will play a best-of-five series with the No. 2 Atlanta Dream starting at 3 p.m. on Sunday in Atlanta.

Six Mystics scored in double figures and the team shot 56.3 percent from the field. They lapped Los Angeles in 3-point shooting for three quarters and sank all 13 of their free throws. But the Mystics were dominant in more than just shooting.

“There are three things we think we need to win a couple of to win playoff games, and that’s turnovers, free-throw difference and rebounding, and we won all of those tonight, besides shooting the ball well,” Mystics coach Mike Thibault said.

Washington outrebounded Los Angeles 36-29 and lost just nine turnovers to its 13.

Elena Delle Donne led all players both with 19 points and 12 rebounds. LaToya Sanders added 14 points, seven boards, four steals and three blocks. Candace Parker led Los Angeles, scoring 16.

Though they played at the Charles E. Smith Center at George Washington University rather than their usual digs at Capital One Arena, the Mystics never looked out of their element. However vocal the fans were, the announced crowd of 3,548 still didn’t fill the very top rows of the much smaller arena, normally the home of the Colonials.

But Delle Donne said the Mystics loved the environment.

“We loved it,” Delle Donne said. “It was a packed house. That’s what playoff atmosphere feels like. To have that many people there and for them to feel like they’re on top of us, it kind of gives us that advantage that we’re looking for.”

The Sparks were first to get hot, scoring on four straight possessions to grab an 8-2 lead, but the Mystics controlled the rest of the first half. Washington kicked off a 15-2 run with coast-to-coast play in which Delle Donne passed up-court to Ariel Atkins, who dished it to LaToya Sanders for a lay-in.

While Parker kept the Sparks hanging in with some brilliant moves, including a fadeaway jumper in the post, the Mystics only kept rolling in the second frame. Despite drawing double-teams around the court, Delle Donne led the Mystics with 13 points by halftime on 5-for-8 shooting and already grabbed nine rebounds by that point.

In a trip off the bench, Tianna Hawkins scored the final eight points of the half, including consecutive 3-pointers. When Delle Donne was doubled up to the left side of the basket, she sent a long baseline pass to Hawkins in the far corner for her second trey.

The Mystics were in control with a 50-29 halftime lead and grew it to 75-46 after three quarters. Washington’s offense continued exploiting the Sparks’ mistakes, and someone was always open. One minute, it was Natasha Cloud passing underneath to Sanders to score; the next, Sanders was finding Atkins open for a bucket. Thibault said the team’s 28 assists were a franchise record.

In addition to her points and assists, Sanders’ presence on defense was crucial.

“LaToya makes my life so easy,” Delle Donne smiled.

“She blocked shots and got the rebounds tonight,” Thibault added.

The beatdown didn’t stop even when Delle Donne left the game in the fourth quarter to a standing ovation. Shatori Walker-Kimbrough scored a quick four points after entering the game for the first time in the final three minutes — a jumper, a steal after the inbound pass and a layup.

The one-sided affair looked nothing like the two sides’ regular season matchup a week ago, when Cloud delivered a 69-67 win on a buzzer-beating jumper. The Mystics forced the Sparks to play a faster pace than they like to do, Thibault said.

The Mystics made it to the semis in 2017 as the league’s sixth seed, upsetting No. 3 New York in the second round to get there. But they were swept by the Minnesota Lynx, the top seed and eventual champions.

“We saw how quickly they were able to go up two games on us. It ended so fast,” Delle Donne said. “So we know the importance of every single game, every single possession. We’ve been through it and we were on the learning side, so I think we were able to learn a lot from it.”

The Sparks beat the Lynx, one of their rivals, 75-68 in the first round to advance to the Washington game. After a 19-15 regular season, their 2018 campaign is over after appearing in the WNBA Finals the last two years and winning the 2016 title.

“I didn’t think we were real sharp at the point of attack (and) pick and roll,” said Sparks coach Brian Agler. “Our rotations were a tad bit slow. … Washington against our defense, we were trying to take a couple things away and they were recognizing it and really made great passes out and hit shots.”

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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