The Mystics fall to Sabrina Ionescu and Liberty in the first game of the WNBA playoffs

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NEW YORK – Brittney Sykes stood in a hallway outside the Washington Mystics locker room at Barclays Center and summed up her team’s 90-75 Game 1 loss to the New York Liberty on Friday night with one word: “Effort”.

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The Mystics took the floor to open their postseason and could not fail. Their first four attempts by four different players found the back of the net.

That lasted just 10 minutes. When the Mystics’ offense cooled, the intangibles (fumbles, getting back on defense, chasing rebounds) became even more important. And that hard-to-define category also belonged to Liberty, who comprehensively outplayed the Mystics in the first game of this best-of-three series. Game two is Tuesday in Brooklyn.

“Effort,” Sykes said. “Loose balls; 50-50 years; offensive rebounds. That’s all I want. I don’t want to say that we didn’t want him, but they wanted him more and he showed it. It was as simple as that.”

The seventh-seeded Mystics split the regular-season series with the Liberty, who fell to the No. 2 seed last week when Sykes rang the bell on this same court. Mystics guard Natasha Cloud celebrated with joy by waving to the Brooklyn crowd as she walked off the court.

Cloud scored four points in nearly 32 minutes on Friday, but added eight rebounds and eight assists. Myisha Hines-Allen led the Mystics with 21 points and Sykes added 16. But the Mystics never found an answer for Sabrina Ionescu, who scored a game-high 29, which included seven 3-pointers, a franchise playoff record.

Mystics enter playoff series against Liberty as ‘very scary’ underdogs

New York dominated the second half and never trailed after halftime as Washington’s offense sputtered. The pace was high from the start as the Mystics came out in transition and forced the Liberty defense to shift and leave shooters open. Things slowed down after that quarter as the Mystics struggled with transition defense and allowed 19 second-chance points.

“We probably had too many possessions where we went down and it was like an action and then looking at each other,” Mystics coach Eric Thibault said. “But I thought the biggest thing that changed after the first quarter was our rebounding. I think they had one offensive board in the first quarter and 13 the rest of the game. It’s hard to get into transition when they get putbacks and kicks from three on offensive boards.”

Elena Delle Donne, a two-time MVP, never found her offensive rhythm and shot just 5 of 12 from the field for 11 points.

“For me, this rehab that I’m going through now is a process and it’s just about me trusting the process,” said Hines-Allen, who had knee surgery in the offseason. “And now I’m peaking at the right time, which is important.”

Washington went on an 8-0 run early in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 71-65, but Ionescu snuffed out the comeback with two 3-pointers to push the lead to 12 as the crowd erupted. That sequence basically ended the game.

“We just have to remember our plans,” Sykes said, “and we have to understand and get to know the staff and who’s who and understand that it’s better for us for her to put the ball on the floor, for her to warm up from the goal. This season she led the damn league by three. I don’t know why we let her throw the damn ball like that.

“It will always be frustrating when you know the solution to the problem and you just don’t do it.”

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Every time the Mystics got within single digits, the Liberty had an answer. Jonquel Jones had a double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds and Betnijah Laney totaled 19 points. League MVP candidate Breanna Stewart had a slow night with 10 points on 3-of-16 shooting.

“I live for this opportunity,” Ionescu said after the match. “…I was kind of in that zone, locked in. The basket felt really big when I was shooting.”

Sykes talked before the game about limiting the bad moments, and the second quarter was one of those, the type of period the Mystics have overcome several times throughout the season.

Washington shot an astonishing 57.1 percent from the field in the first quarter and led, 27.23, as all five starters scored.

Laney kept the Liberty afloat from the start while Stewart was held scoreless, regularly arriving in the right place at the right time.

Things changed in the second quarter as the Mystics slowed down offensively and Liberty was the one getting contributions from everyone. All five of New York’s starters scored in that second quarter, and a 6-1 run to close the quarter, capped by Laney’s layup at the buzzer, gave New York the halftime lead.

“The first quarter was like, oh, here we go, they could get 120,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “But we knew we were going to get better defensively and it was just some little adjustments that helped us.”


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