Mystics finally come home to new arena, high expectations

“Whatever’s right in front of you is all that counts.”

That’s the mantra head coach Mike Thibault delivered to this year’s Washington Mystics, a team with plenty to be excited about in 2019.

Last year, the Mystics advanced to the WNBA Finals for the first time. They saw their core gel at just the right time, only to watch the season be nearly derailed by injury, all while the finishing touches were being put on their new arena. They were rendered playoff nomads, playing games at the Smith Center on the George Washington campus, then EagleBank Arena in Fairfax.

While they were swept in the finals — with Elena Delle Donne still nursing an injured knee — the future looked bright, with excitement building for the opening of their new arena.

At long last, that day is here. The Mystics host the Atlanta Dream in a Conference Finals rematch Saturday at the Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southeast D.C.

That’s not to say the road to Saturday has been without its bumps. Already missing Delle Donne with a sore knee in the season opener in Connecticut last weekend, the Mystics saw point guard Kristi Tolliver suffer a thigh contusion, leaving early in an 84-69 loss. Both players are on the mend, though, with Delle Donne going through a full practice Tuesday and Tolliver shooting and running drills this week in hopes of returning for the home opener.

“I’m hoping she’s starting to feel better, she’s moving a lot better,” said Delle Donne of Tolliver. “She’s super tough, so I know if she’s able to play, she will.”

When the defending champion Seattle Storm lost Brianna Stewart to a season-ending torn Achilles injury in April, the Mystics became a less-than-prohibitive-favorite to win the wide open league, but a favorite nonetheless. But Thibault wasn’t interested in what anybody else thought.

“Just because everybody says that you’re the favorite, that means zero,” he said.

Thibault also indicated that we may not get a comprehensive look at just what the team could look like come playoff time for quite a while. In addition to players on the mend, forward Emma Meesseman will be competing abroad in EuroBasket 2019 in late June/early July. The team made do without her at all last year, but having her in the mix down the stretch can only add to their chances.

All of that can wait, though. First up, it’s time to break in the new digs. The team has been enjoying use of the on-site practice courts and treatment center all offseason, but it will be a different story competing under the lights Saturday night.

“I think once we play our first game out there and the crowd’s rocking, it will be a nice ‘welcome home’ kind of feel,” said Delle Donne.

On Thursday, The Atlantic held a summit on athletes and activism, during which both Tolliver and teammate Natasha Cloud spoke as part of a panel discussion. For Thibault, that made the actuality of Saturday feel real.

“I hadn’t thought about it until everybody started talking about it today, at the event,” he said. “All of the sudden it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, OK, we’re really going to do this now.’”

The 4,200-seat arena offers the chance for a more compact setting like the one the Mystics experienced at Smith Center (capacity 5,000) last year in the playoffs.

“That was awesome, we loved playing there,” said Delle Donne. “If it can feel like that, that will be quite the atmosphere for every home game … I think it makes it more fun for the crowd, too, to feel like they’re making an impact.”

The team is close to a sellout for Saturday’s opener, and is throwing a free block party with music, food, clinics, and appearances by former stars, open to the public starting at 2 p.m. and running up through a half-hour before the 7 p.m. tip. Thibault sees all of it — the building, the Atlantic event, the party — as signs of a long-lasting embrace of the team by the city.

“They matter,” he said of the players. “They’re important to the organization, they’re important to the city, and people want them to be successful. I think, as a player, you get that sense every day when you walk in here that, OK, we have something special going.”

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