- The Washington Times - Monday, May 6, 2019

The Washington Mystics were glad to get the gang back together again Sunday for their team dinner, an annual tradition under coach Mike Thibault. Some players spent the offseason playing overseas; others rehabbed injuries or took time to rest. In honor of May 5, the players, coaches and even the team’s business staff had a Cinco de Mayo-themed meal.

But the Mystics shared something else besides tacos when Thibault played film of the Seattle Storm rejoicing after a sweep of Washington in the 2018 WNBA Finals.

“Our team watched the video last night of that moment, of Seattle celebrating,” Elena Delle Donne said. “It was kinda good to get that feeling again — that pit in your stomach of not wanting that to ever happen again.”

Although 2018 was the most successful campaign in franchise history, marked by the Mystics’ first appearance in the league championship series, they share a hunger to get back to the Finals and finish what they started.

Natasha Cloud said their motto this season is “Run it back” — a phrase familiar to generations of basketball players, who hear it after pickup games from teams eager for rematches and from coaches demanding practice-drill perfection.

Get back and get better — it’s what the Mystics hope to do to build on last season.

“For us, you know, ‘Run it back,’ that’s what I was saying every single day this offseason when I was working out because I couldn’t let those three games go against Seattle,” Kristi Toliver added. “I still haven’t. I won’t.”

A few weeks before the Mystics opened training camp Monday, Las Vegas pegged them as 5-to-2 preseason favorites to win the WNBA title. They will benefit from a few things this season, starting with very little roster turnover. Tierra Ruffin-Pratt signed elsewhere in free agency and Monique Currie retired, but most of the Mystics’ core minute-getters are back — as well as big Belgian Emma Meesseman, who took off the 2018 WNBA season to train with her national team in Europe.

Add in that Seattle, though indisputably the best team of 2018, will have to play without league MVP Breanna Stewart, who ruptured her Achilles in the EuroLeague championship game.

“When you have everybody back and you add a couple good players, that adds to the aura about a team,” Thibault said. “I told our players yesterday in our team meeting that you have to handle being the hunted. You have to understand that you’re getting everybody’s best shot, and that’s why we can’t look too far ahead to anything.”

But Thibault and the players know a return to the Finals is hardly preordained.

“I like having a target on our backs, because it makes us prepare that much harder during the training camp and for the season,” Cloud said.

For the third year, the Mystics will be anchored by Delle Donne, who was the league’s fifth-leading scorer last year (20.7 ppg). Toliver and Cloud make for a threatening backcourt duo on both ends of the floor, and Ariel Atkins and LaToya Sanders figure to round out the starting five until Meesseman acclimates back into the fold.

The Mystics are also excited to play in their new digs in Ward 8, the Entertainment and Sports Arena. After playing at the NBA-sized Capital One Arena for so long — and hopping around from George Washington University to George Mason for 2018 playoff games when Capital One underwent renovations — the 4,200-seat arena is ready for them after hosting the Capital City Go-Go’s debut season in the G League.

“We loved playing in Capital One, but the fans always seemed so far away,” Sanders said. “You couldn’t tell we had 5 to 8,000 fans at a game because everybody was so spread out. It’s important. They pulled out all the stops for us.”

The May 25 regular season opener is still a few weeks out, but Washington will play that game on the road at the Connecticut Sun. The Mystics then will christen their new arena June 1 against the Atlanta Dream — a rematch of the 2018 playoff semifinals.

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