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Liberty fall to Mystics for fifth straight loss

Liberty center Tina Charles shoots as Minnesota Lynx

Liberty center Tina Charles shoots as Minnesota Lynx center Sylvia Fowles (34) defends during the first half of a WNBA basketball game on Tuesday in White Plains, N.Y. Photo Credit: AP/Kathy Willens

WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — The Washington Mystics are a prime threat to claim first prize for the first time.

The Liberty got their final chance to see how they matched up with MVP candidate Elena Delle Donne and the mighty Mystics Tuesday night at Westchester County Center. 

After falling in a 27-point hole in the third, the Liberty played better. They finished even for the period and two points better in the fourth. They even held Delle Donne to five points in the second half. But she scored 25 of her 30 in the first half and Ariel Atkins contributed 23 overall, powering Washington to a 93-77 win and a sweep of the three-game season series. 

“This franchise, this organization, was once there three years ago,” Tina Charles said about being a championship contender like the Mystics. “I don’t see why it can’t turn around and be there again.”

The Mystics, who lost to Seattle in the WNBA Finals last year, moved to 24-8, 1 1/2 games ahead of Connecticut for the top overall seed and home-court advantage throughout the postseason. They’ve won four straight and 14 of 16 on the way to setting the single-season franchise record for victories.  

“Obviously, we’re the greatest team and I think we’re going to win it all,” Delle Donne said, countering the recent claim by Connecticut’s Courtney Williams that the Sun are going to win it all. “I think every team going in the playoffs is going to say that. … We’re battle-tested.”

The Liberty have two games left. They have dropped five straight and 16 of 18, leaving them at 9-23. They’re one game ahead of Indiana (16-50 to 17-49) for worst two-year record, the basis for the best odds in the draft lottery. The two teams meet here Friday night.

“I do believe from last year to this year we’ve made strides,” coach Katie Smith said.

Rookie guard Marine Johannes scored a career-high 22 points off the bench. Forward Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe matched her career high with 12 points, also off the bench. But Charles was held to four shots and four points.

“I know we can beat anybody,” Smith said. “It’s just that we have to do it on a consistent [basis].”

Besides more consistency in all phases, they clearly need some more reinforcements.

The Mystics constructed an 18-point advantage late in the first quarter after Delle Donne made a three. But Johannes buried back-to-back threes to cut it to 31-19 heading for the second quarter.

The cushion was back up to 18 at the break, at 58-40. Delle Donne shot 7-for-9 in the second quarter and scored 17. But she went 2-for-8 in the second half.

“We hit her,” Raincock-Ekunwe said. “We got her out of her comfort zone. … I don’t think she really loves physicality."

Washington led 71-44 in the third, but the Liberty had it down to 75-57 heading for the fourth. A three-point play by Raincock-Ekunwe in the first minute chipped it down to 13. But that’s as close as it got.

“I think moving forward, it’s having that [fighting] mentality for 40 minutes,” Raincock-Ekunwe said, “because right now it seems like the fight comes out when we’re down 20 points and it’s a little bit late.”

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