WASHINGTON -- The Washington Mystics faced the Brittney Griner-led Phoenix Mercury Friday night after four straight games against teams headlined by Elena Delle Donne and Maya Moore. Those three players are the WNBA's biggest stars with the 6-foot-8 Griner its tallest. Those matchups provided the playoff-seeking Mystics with a measuring stick.
The conclusion: Washington belongs.
Despite facing the tallest of the headliners shorthanded, the Mystics fended off the defending WNBA champions for a 71-63 victory at Verizon Center.
The victory snapped a two-game losing streak, but gave Washington (16-11) a 3-2 record during this challenging stretch.
Thrust into the Mystics starting lineup because of injuries, sparkplug guard Ivory Latta matched her season-high with 24 points. She made all nine of her free throw attempts and scored four straight points late to help seal the win including a floater with 1:38 remaining.
Playing despite a dislocated finger, All-Star forward Emma Meesseman scored 14 points, grabbed a team-high six rebounds and had two blocks in the fourth quarter.
"This was a good test. They're the defending champions. They're one of the favorites for the championship this year," Meesseman said. "It's great for our confidence. ...Just to know that we can play like we did today. That we can beat the good teams."
The swing started with two wins over team with the best record in the WNBA, including a rousing 79-61 road triumph at Minnesota on Aug. 16.
The Mystics then lost back-to-back two-point heartbreakers to the Sky. That meant Friday's matchup with the second-best team in the West would be the difference from a winning or losing stretch. Another loss would mean three in a row before heading out for a four-game road swing.
"This definitely was one of the games we had to have," said Latta who also five assists and three steals without a turnover.
Griner had 12 points, including her sixth career dunk, and nine rebounds for the Mercury, but dealt with foul trouble in the fourth quarter. Leilani Mitchell led Phoenix with 16 points. The Mercury went scoreless for the final 2:43 after Griner's jumper cut Washington's lead to 65-63.
"We have a defensive identity about us right now," Mystics coach Mike Thibault said. "Our offense kind of comes and goes at times. ...but as long as you can keep yourself in the games against the good teams, you give yourself a chance at the end to win it. That's all we want."
Actually, the coach covets something else these days: Healthy bodies.
Meesseman hasn't missed any games despite dealing with a dislocated finger. Good thing because Washington hasn't been at full strength lately. Starting guard Kara Lawson (back) and reserve Tayler Hill (ankle) did not face Phoenix. Forward LaToya Sanders played despite a sore knee.
The rash of injuries with seven games remaining led Thibault to viewing the measuring stick angle from a bump and bruises perspective.
"I guess right now I'd put every day as a measuring stick about where we are," he said.
Where they are is in control of the fourth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The win increased their lead to 4.5 games over idle Connecticut while lowering its magic number to three. The top four teams in the East - New York, Indiana, Chicago occupy the top three spots - are separated by 2.5 games. Only the Liberty have clinched a playoff berth.
The Mystics reached the playoffs the previous two seasons. This run is different. Being five games over .500 says as much. Washington didn't finish the regular season with a winning record in 2013 or 2014.
"I would say yes," Meesseman said of the different feel. "But we can't think about it yet until we're in the playoffs. We can't think about it too much."
Thibault thought back to his pre-season message when eventually tacking the measuring stick angle.
"I told them in training camp that as long as I feel we're getting better every day, then everything kind of takes care of itself," he said. "Despite the (losses) to Chicago, we got better this week."
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