Even though Thursday's game represents a welcome home for the road-tripping Mystics and a chance for coach Mike Thibault to make history, the game's primary focus will be on the visiting starting center. Brittney Griner has that affect.
The imposing 6-foot-8 rookie out of Baylor, No. 1 selection in the 2013 WNBA Draft, friend of Redskins star Robert Griffin III and perhaps league savior enters D.C. for the first time as a member of the Phoenix Mercury (5-4). If the Mystics (4-4) are to snap their current three-game losing streak, they will need to come up with a better defensive effort than the one employed against Griner and company last Friday.
Part of a heralded rookie class which includes Chicago's Elena Della Donne and Tulsa's Skylar Diggins, Griner has generated increased attention for the league on and off the court.
Her season debut generated the highest ratings on ESPN2 in nine years. In that outing, she became the first player in league history to dunk twice in the same game. On Tuesday the Harlem Globetrotters made the 22-year-old the No, 1 pick in their first-ever draft (she's passing on the chance).
Before starting her career, Griner revealed that she is gay after keeping it concealed while in college due to a request from her coach who feared the announcement would harm the program.
There is no question she has helped the Mercury, who have won five of their last six games. Through eight games, including last Friday's 90-82 win over the Mystics, Griner is averaging 16.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game. Diana Taurasi leads Phoenix with 23.9 points per game.
On Tuesday, playing three hours from Waco where she starred for the Bears, Griner scored a career-high 26 points in the Mercury's 83-77 road win over the San Antonio Silver Stars. The three-time college All-American also blocked five shots.
"That second half was as effective as you can be as a post player on both sides of the court,'' Taurasi said following the win according to the Associated Press. "Defensively, she really patched up a lot of our mistakes. Offensively, when she gets in position like that, she has such a great touch and feel for the basket. She played really well today, that's probably the best game as a pro she's played.''
Against Washington, Griner scored 21 points on 10 of 15 shooting as the Mercury shot 51.6 percent from the field. The Mystics trailed by 13 in the second half, but a quick 13-2 fourth quarter run pulled them closer at 80-78 with 3:21 left, but they would get no closer.
In the three setbacks, Washington, which needs one win to match last season's total, allowed 88.3 points per game. In their last six games, the Mercury has averaged 88.2 points while going 5-1.
Leading scorer and point guard Ivory Latta paced the Mystics with 22 points against Phoenix. However, Washington's overall leading scorer had only 14 points combined in the other two losses including a season-low five in Sunday's 79-69 defeat at Los Angeles.
"Every time she ran a pick and roll, they trapped her,'' Thibault told the AP after the latest loss. "It's fine if she's making shots and she gets assists, but that didn't happen. And I think she got into a situation where she started walking it up a little. That doesn't play into our strength right now."
Thibault moved veteran Matee Ajavon into the starting lineup against the Sparks, replacing first round pick Tayler Hill. The 5-foot-10 guard scored only 18 points in her first seven games. Against Los Angeles, Hill, who was the first player drafted this year after the starry trio, had 16 points on 6 of 7 shooting including four 3-pointers.
With his next victory, Thibault ties Van Chancellor for the most wins in WNBA history with 211. Washington signed Thibault in December after he was fired by the Connecticut Sun following 10 seasons as head coach.
Diggins makes her local debut Sunday as the Shock face Washington. Della Donne and the Sky make their D.C. appearance of the season on July 24.