Mystics Youth Movement Making Great Strides

The recent back-to-back Mystics wins against the New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks showed a young team that was finding its way in the league. The Mystics have not won against the Sparks, a team that boasted a 24-10 record in 2013, since the classic 89-85 overtime road win in 2011. This was the first home win against the Sparks since June 2010. The win against a veteran Los Angeles team that was comprised of a reigning league MVP, all-stars, and Olympians proved that the recent rebuilding efforts are paying off, perhaps quicker than many outsiders expected.

Although there may have been some who thought this year would be more of a rebuilding year, the recent success doesn’t surprise those within the Mystics organization, especially head coach and general manager Mike Thibault.

On draft day back in April, the Mystics selected Stefanie Dolson with the sixth overall pick and then acquired the next player selected, Bria Hartley, in a blockbuster trade with the Seattle Storm. Though the Mystics had to part ways with All-Star Crystal Langhorne, the team was able to get younger through the trade and acquired players in Hartley and Tianna Hawkins that fit Thibault’s style and the team’s long-term plans. Both Dolson and Hartley played four years at the University of Connecticut’s storied program and won two National Championships during that span.

Thibault had this in mind when picking up both players, noting their winning history and their readiness for the league. On draft day, Thibault described Dolson as a “ready-made player for our league…[who] knows how to win.” After Friday’s win against the Liberty, in which the Mystics crashed the boards and outrebounded New York 41 to 26, it was important for the Mystics to keep up the intensity and be competitive rebounding-wise against a good rebounding L.A. team—and the rookie center from UCONN provided just that. After the win, Thibault said that Dolson, who posted her first career double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, “did a good job on the boards of keeping [the Sparks] from getting second shots.”

On Hartley, Thibault said back in April that she “knows how to win [and] is a good complement to Ivory [Latta] and Kara [Lawson].” On Sunday, it played out perfectly. Thibault wanted to match up to L.A.’s size by bringing in a bigger guard that could penetrate and complement Latta’s outside game; Hartley came off of the bench and ended the game as the Mystics leading scorer with 20 points.

In addition to the young duo from UCONN, another crucial tandem has stepped up big for the Mystics: the European tandem of second-year player Emma Meesseman and rookie Jelena Milovanovic, both second-round picks. Drafted in 2013 and from Belgium, Meesseman, now 21, has had to battle through much more than being a lower pick and her young age to make the Mystics roster. Born with only 50 percent of her hearing, Meesseman has worked hard to translate her international success to the WNBA and her hard work has paid off. Last season, she played an important role as a bench contributor and now in 2014 she’s cracked the starting five and has become an integral part to the team’s core unit.

Milovanovic, drafted in 2009, is just now in her rookie year in the league. After spending the last four years playing professionally in Europe, Milovanovic has brought her confident shooting to the Mystics. After the win over the Sparks, Thibault characterized Milovanovic as “steady” and not getting caught up in the emotions of the game, adding that “she just makes plays, she’s so smart.”

These four players combined for 54 points in Sunday’s win over Los Angeles and were the ones on the court from late in the fourth quarter to the end of the third overtime against the veteran Sparks team.

After Sunday’s game, Thibault added that games like these are valuable to the young players’ growths, saying that the young team was “tested…[and] survived the test” and “learned some valuable lessons.”

But it is hard for a young team to win without veteran leadership. Thibault described the leadership on the team as “great” and that the “chemistry of this team off the court has been as good as I could’ve hoped for.”

Having a point guard like Ivory Latta, one of the veteran leaders cited by Thibault, has been a real luxury for this squad.

During this two game stretch, it has been Latta, a seven-year veteran, who provided the late game heroics that allowed the Mystics a chance to win. She was the lone veteran on the court with three rookies and a sophomore during crunch time against Los Angeles.

Latta struggled to make shots throughout regulation in Sunday’s game, but like any good scorer, she did not let the misses bother her. Thibault said that Latta is unafraid of big moments and referenced to her “good short-term memory.” The Sparks head coach Carol Ross remarked on Latta’s ability to make shots down the stretch, saying, “Latta likes to take over the fourth quarter; in this [game] the fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh…To her credit, she rose to the occasion and we weren’t quite good enough.” When asked if she played differently when playing with such young players during crunch time, Latta said, “Absolutely, I had to step up and be the vet. But at the same time, I got confidence in the rookies; I know they’ll get the job done.”

As Hartley summed up after Sunday’s win, “I think when you go out there and have to fight through adversity like we did tonight, for us rookies it makes us grow up a lot quicker, and then you have the veterans there that are supporting you and then making plays like Ivory did… I think we all just banded together and everyone stepped up and made a play tonight.”

After Tuesday’s practice, Thibault was not ready to look too far ahead and also emphasized the necessity of growth, “week to week, day by day.”

This is a talented young team, which has no dearth of talented veterans, and if that growth is achieved, it is built to win, now and in the future.