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Mystics squeak by Aces in last-second thriller to earn Game 1 victory

Mystics squeak by Aces in last-second thriller to earn Game 1 victory

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Mystics beat the Las Vegas Aces 97-95 in Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals on Tuesday night. Here are five observations from the game...

1. The Mystics took Step 1 towards what they hope is the first championship in franchise history on Tuesday night, as they held off an Aces team with the size and athleticism to put up a real fight. But Washington's outside shooting and ability to limit mistakes proved too much in the first of a five-game series. 

The Mystics made 11 threes compared to the Aces' seven and committed only four turnovers while Las Vegas coughed up 13 of them. Emma Meesseman led the way with 27 points and 10 rebounds, shooting a crisp 12-for-18 from the field. Elena Delle Donne was next with 24 points, six boards and six assists. Natasha Cloud (12 points) was the only other Mystic in double-figures. 

Delle Donne made the game-sealing shot, a turnaround fadeaway with 32 seconds to go. That put the Mystics up by four and the Aces couldn't close the gap.

2. Despite having a nine-day layoff between games, it was the Mystics who came out sharp. They made six of their first 10 shots and led 21-10 with just over three minutes to go in the first quarter.

The Aces had played just two days before, yet they took several minutes to get adjusted. The Mystics' quickness gave them trouble, especially on defense where they caught Aces center Liz Cambage (19 points, 12 rebounds) sleeping on a pair of turnovers in the post.

It didn't last long, however. The Aces sped up and got going on the fastbreak. By the end of the first quarter, they were within three points. Though they attempted 13 fewer shots in the first than the Mystics did, they made 73.3 percent of their looks.

3. Speed was the key in Las Vegas' best stretches. In the second quarter, they pushed the pace to outscore Washington 30-20. Kelsey Plum (16 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), the 2018 first overall pick, lit the spark. She made the Mystics pay for not getting back on defense by creating quick opportunities off made baskets. 

The Aces were able to turn up the speed when they went small in the second quarter, with the 6-foot-8 Cambage on the bench. A'ja Wilson went to work, scoring eight of her 23 points in the second quarter.

4. Hurting the Mystics in the speed department was the knee injury to All-Star guard Kristi Tolliver. She played for the first time since Aug. 8 and had some rust to shake off. 

She wasn't limping, but didn't have her usual quickness. And it seemed like her insertion into the lineup affected the Mystics' rhythm early on, as they hadn't played with her in six weeks. They went 10-1 while she was out, making it a delicate task to bring her back and not disrupt a smooth operation.

From the looks of Tolliver on Tuesday night, it seems like she could be dealing with the injury throughout the playoffs. To remain effective, she will have to lean on her accurate outside shooting and abilities as a distributor. 

By the fourth quarter, she did just that. Tolliver got a pair of threes to fall and finished with eight points and four assists in 23 minutes.

5. The Mystics had a lot of support in Game 1. It was a big, energetic crowd that featured a host of their Wizards counterparts. John Wall, Rui Hachimura, Isaiah Thomas, Ish Smith, Thomas Bryant and Justin Robinson were among the players in attendance. General manager Tommy Sheppard was there along with executives Sashi Brown and John Thompson III. 

Ted Leonsis wants to see more synergy between his teams under the Monumental Basketball umbrella. Tuesday night was a good example.

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Mystics players look for improved WNBA travel, calling current plan 'trash'

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Mystics players look for improved WNBA travel, calling current plan 'trash'

Picture LeBron James or Steph Curry boarding a plane and squeezing their legs into a coach seat the day before a road game. 

It doesn’t happen.

But for the Washington Mystics and WNBA players, it’s part of their weekly routine.

“It’s trash,” Mystics point guard Natasha Cloud said.

Earlier this week, Indiana Fever forward Natalie Achonwa documented the team’s travel woes in a Twitter thread. It took her team 24 hours to get home.

“Where do you see that in the NBA?” Cloud said. “I know they play a lot of games, but we’re doing the same thing in a short amount of time in three and a half, four months. So it would make the biggest difference for us.”

The travel inconveniences happen all too often.

Forward Tianna Hawkins said before the third game of the season against the Connecticut Sun, both the teams' original and back-up planes to New York had technical problems, and they were delayed four to five hours.

The same thing happened last season. The Mystics needed a redeye flight from Las Vegas to Seattle, but the first trip was delayed, so the team missed its connecting flight and ended up stuck in Chicago. 

“It’s hectic,” Hawkins said. “We go to the airport like ‘alright, I hope we don’t get a delay today.’ But we know that something’s gonna happen.”

Players said their travel experiences in college were better than they are in the WNBA. Now, road games present an unexpected hurdle for the professionals who want to play the highest level of their sport.

“It’s sad because I feel like the college days are better,” guard Shey Peddy said. “We had private planes. I don’t remember our flights being canceled at all. So it kinda feels like a step back when it should be a step forward.”

Cloud said there’s no reason the WNBA shouldn’t be chartering. Her alma mater, St. Joseph’s (PA) – “a mid-major with not a lot of money” could afford to charter.

But those private jets? They’re considered an unfair competitive advantage, according to the current collective bargaining agreement.

“It’s an unfair advantage for [Mystics forward] Elena Delle Donne, who’s 6-foot-5, to have to sit in economy in the middle seat of an aisle and then go perform,” Cloud said. “You expect us to perform, we expect to be able to have our bodies healthy and not lock up on planes.”

Because commercial travel is undependable, Mystics players have abundant advice for rookies on travel days: wear compression leggings, bring a gallon of water, keep electronics charged, pack a book and stock up on snacks and sandwiches – because “airport food is expensive, everybody knows that,” as Peddy puts it.

Cloud advises sneaking into a more spacious exit row.

But, changes could be on the way. The Women’s National Basketball Players Association will opt out of the current CBA after the 2019 season. The players hope to receive higher salaries and more accommodating travel schedules.

“I think we deserve it,” Peddy said. “I think if some of the [NBA] G-league players have [private jets], we should have that. Hopefully that’s a priority.”

Guard Kristi Toliver, playing in her 10th season, isn’t as optimistic.

“It is what it is, but it’s not changing soon,” Toliver said. “I would prefer to get paid more money than worry about travel.”

But still, when the schedule gets tough, she tells herself to keep her head up.

“Think gratitude. You get to play the game that you love.”

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What to know about the Washington Mystics season opener

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What to know about the Washington Mystics season opener

The Mystics reached their first WNBA Finals in franchise history in 2018 but were swept by the Seattle Storm in the championship series.

Elle Delle Donne -- who was recently named in WNBA.com's GM survey as the favorite to win league MVP -- is back for her third season in Washington.

Though she is out for the opener, Delle Donne believes the team is ready to make another run at the title thanks to the return of All-Star forward Emma Meesseman. 

Earlier Friday, the Mystics announced their final 12-woman roster for the 2019 season. Delle Donne and guard Kristi Toliver headline a team that includes nine returners from the 2018 team, as well as Meesseman, who played for the Mystics from 2013-17 but sat out in 2018 to focus on playing for the Belgian national team. The final roster spots went to WNBA rookies Kiara Leslie and Kim Mestdagh.

According to ESPN, the Mystics, Los Angeles Sparks and Las Vegas Aces are the favorites to win the championship this season.

The WNBA's 23rd season kicks of Friday night at 7:30 p.m. ET when the Atlanta Dream host the Dallas Wings.

MYSTICS VS. SUN HOW TO WATCH

What: Washington Mystics vs. Connecticut Sun, Regular Season Game 1

Where: Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, CT

When: 7:30 p.m. ET

Live Stream: You can live stream on WNBA's League Pass website by signing up for a free trial

NBC Sports Washington will be broadcasting 10 Mystics home games during the 2019 WNBA season. For the full regular season schedule, click here.

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