- The Washington Times - Friday, August 31, 2018

Someone important was missing, and it showed.

The Washington Mystics had their share of chances to take control against the Atlanta Dream Friday night, but without superstar and leading scorer Elena Delle Donne at the center of the offense, their efforts faltered.

In a rough and sometimes sloppy Game 3 of the WNBA Semifinals, the Mystics fell 81-76 to the Dream and conceded a 2-1 series lead to Atlanta.

Washington will host Game 4 on Sunday; a loss would end its season once again short of the WNBA Finals. The game time is yet to be announced.

Aerial Powers led the Mystics in scoring, posting 18 points along with eight rebounds in just 22 minutes off the bench. Ariel Atkins scored 17 and LaToya Sanders tallied 12 points, eight boards, four assists and six blocks.

The Mystics were hampered by poor shooting nights from their starting guards. Kristi Toliver went 3-for-15 and 1-for-9 from deep for just seven points, and Natasha Cloud scored only three. Without them or Delle Donne, there was not enough offense to counter the sharp shooting of Atlanta’s Tiffany Hayes, who led all scorers with 23 points, and Brittney Sykes, who had 17.

Dream forward Elizabeth Williams also had a big night in the paint without Delle Donne to reckon with, scoring 14 on 7-for-12 from the field.

The team announced an hour before the game that Delle Donne was out. She entered Friday listed as questionable with a bone bruise in her left knee she suffered in the fourth quarter of Game 2 Tuesday. She participated in the Mystics’ morning shootaround about 10 hours before the game, so it might have been a gametime decision. Coach Mike Thibault previously said her decision would be a matter of pain tolerance.

“It’s like with any great star in this league. Your team is just never gonna be the same without her,” Thibault said. “I thought we put up a great fight. I don’t think we played great offensively at all.”

It is unknown whether Delle Donne will play Game 4.

The Dream went on a 6-0 run at the end of the first quarter to go ahead 19-13. Tianna Hawkins, starting in Delle Donne’s place at the four, led the Mystics with five points in the first. But as a team they shot just 31.3 percent and 1-for-5 from 3-point range.

Washington came charging back in the second quarter with some help from its bench. Powers came off the bench firing away, taking her first six shots and totaling six points as part of an 11-3 Mystic stretch.

The Mystics acquired Powers from Dallas in July in a straight-up trade for Tayler Hill, seeking to add forward depth. Powers is a small forward, but Thibault asked her to sub on for Hawkins and play the four for the first time as a Mystic.

Though she was nervous from not having experience with the power forward’s roles in Washington’s plays, Powers said she was happy with the surprise assignment.

“This is the reason why I was happy: because coming from a guard and trying to rebound is so hard coming from the perimeter and trying to get in there and rebound,” Powers said. “I felt like at least with me at the four, I would already be down there and try to box the girls out and out-jump them if I can and get some rebounds.

Meanwhile, Thibault tried and tried to communicate with the officials as calls seemed to go the Dream’s way almost exclusively. Kristi Toliver was called for a technical that angered the coach, and not a minute later, an acrobatic Atkins shot was nullified when officials ruled for a jump ball instead. At the end of the game, though, Atlanta had been called for five more personal fouls than Washington.

The sides traded baskets the rest of the quarter. Jessica Breland scored on three straight possessions to help the Dream separate themselves and bring a 37-34 lead into halftime.

The Dream scored the first seven points of the second half and Washington didn’t get on the board for almost four minutes. The Mystics fell back in a hole, trailing by as many as 10.

But 3-pointers from Atkins and Toliver and a Powers coast-to-coast layup bookended a 12-1 Washington run that again brought the game even.

Atlanta led by just two to start the fourth, but soon, consecutive 3-pointers from the red-hot Hayes and Brittney Sykes dug the Mystics’ hole deeper with time ticking away. It would end up being the hole from which they wouldn’t recover, even though they pieced together one final 6-0 run with 2:30 to play.

They took the expected questions about Delle Donne’s absence, but Thibault and the Mystics were not interested in using it as an excuse for the loss. Thibault, as he often does, referred to the team’s poor shooting percentage of 36.0.

“The game, when it was invented, was to make shots,” Thibault said. “We needed more than one or two people to make open shots or create open shots … (when) you get into a well-scouted slugfest in the playoffs, and if you don’t have that extra scorer, then you gotta win it on the defensive end, let your defense create the offense, which we did for part of the game.”

It was less about corrections needing to be made and more about chemistry lacking among its different lineups, Sanders said. In the event that Delle Donne can’t go Sunday, Sanders said the team will work on that chemistry in practice.

She otherwise had an optimistic view of their performance and hustle.

“Despite the mistakes that we made, it worked for us. We lost only by five points,” Sanders said. “Nobody probably thought we would lose by five points with Elena being out.”

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