They had committed just two turnovers through the first three quarters against the top-seeded Seattle Storm . Elevated intensity on defense was readily apparent. And third-seeded Washington had possession with 16 seconds to play, down a single point with an opportunity to even the series at KeyArena.
But when Kristi Toliver attempted to dribble though the painted area in the closing seconds, Seattle's Sue Bird got a hand on the ball and it came loose. A scrum ensued, a jump ball was called and the Storm won possession and held on for a 75-73 victory, leaving Washington in a 2-0 hole in the best-of-five series. Game 3 will be Wednesday at EagleBank Arena.
How officials arrived at the decision became a point of contention for Mystics Coach Mike Thibault and his players in the game's aftermath.
"Yeah, I got fouled going baseline," said Toliver, whose consecutive contested turnaround fadeaway jumpers had drawn the Mystics to 74-73 with 35 seconds to go. "It was pretty blatant. It was pretty obvious. Sue's smart. She knows they have one foul to give. They wanted to foul before I could be in a shooting motion.
"I wish that officials had a little more basketball IQ like Sue does because that would have been [a foul] instead of a jump ball."
Bird and Storm Coach Dan Hughes offered an entirely different perspective on the sequence that unfolded with 6.9 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Bird contended she reached around Toliver to force the steal after getting beat, yielding a jump ball that Seattle's Natasha Howard won against Tianna Hawkins by tipping it to teammate JewelL Loyd.
The Mystics allowed precious seconds to run off the clock before finally fouling Alysha Clark, who made one of two free throws with 1.8 seconds left in front of an announced crowd of 14,212.
"That was a play where you go into that, you don't want them to get a good look, right?" Bird said. "So when she caught it in the corner, there's a moment when, you're guarding Kristi Toliver, there's a moment when we're only up [one], I'm thinking, 'She might shoot this three,' so I lunged out a little bit. Once she got by me, I was lucky to get a piece of the ball.
"I knew we had a foul to give, but that was not my intention at all."
Bird not only turned in the defensive play of the game but also the shot of the series so far when she banked in a three-pointer from some 45 feet at the shot-clocker buzzer for a 68-63 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
The Mystics, meanwhile, went 0-for-16 from beyond the arc one game after going just 3-for-21 in an 89-76 loss Friday night. They also committed five turnovers in the fourth quarter and finished minus-10 in rebounding overall, including 11-6 offensively.
Seattle took the lead for good during a 7-0 spurt to begin the fourth quarter that featured Breanna Stewart 's three-pointer. The reigning league MVP finished with a game-high 25 points, seven rebounds, three assists and two steals. She also went 10 of 14 from the foul line, much to the dismay of Thibault.
"I'm looking at the stat sheet, and I'm trying to figure out how Breanna Stewaart shot 14 free throws and Elena Delle Donne shot three," he said.
Stewart did miss two fouls shots with 16 seconds remaining that allowed Washington the chance to win.
Delle Donne led the Mystics with 17 points while continuing to play on a sore left knee. The 2015 WNBA MVP wore a black sleeve on her left leg to protect a bone bruise suffered late in Game of the WNBA semifinals. She had been using a more cumbersome brace over the last few games.
Rookie forward Ariel Atkins added 15 points but needed 15 shots to reach that total, and center LaToya Sanders added eight points and seven rebounds with a broken knuckle in her right hand.
"She got clotheslined," Sanders said of Toliver, referring to the jump-ball call. "I mean I felt like it was clear as day she got clotheslined."
To reach that point, Washington had played far more disciplined defensively than in Game 1, getting hands in passing lanes and forcing deflections and turnovers.
Poor shot selection early, however, left the Mystics having to play catch-up. The crisp passing during the WNBA semifinals was conspicuously absent, leading to one-on-one offense with unfruitful outcomes.
Trailing by a dozen to start the second quarter, Washington gained ground thanks to a jolt off the bench from Aerial Powers. The reserve forward scored four straight points, including stealing an inbounds pass and sinking a jumper to trigger a 10-0 run that drew the Mystics within 31-30 with five minutes to go until halftime.
The momentum continued into the locker room for Washington, which allowed just four field goals in the second quarter and closed with back-to-back baskets to claim the lead at halftime, 40-36, and quieting, at least temporarily, the exuberant crowd.
"I didn't see a foul," Hughes said of the crucial call. "That's the nature when it's this competitive. I have no question that there's plays both teams can look at and say, 'Boy, I wish this would have gone this way here.' It's the nature of what we're doing, but from my vantage point, didn't see it."