Mystics lose to the Aces as Ariel Atkins leaves with injury

LAS VEGAS — Brittney Sykes stood at the free throw line midway through the second quarter Thursday night, drenched in sweat, mouth open as she sucked in air. This wasn’t the normal exhaustion from playing in a WNBA game. This was someone who was so sick earlier in the day that she had to skip shoot-around.

Sykes fought through the illness in an 84-75 loss to the first-place Las Vegas Aces but sprinted off the court to the locker room late in the game as she felt ill again.

That’s the kind of night it was in Vegas as the newly healthy Mystics (17-19) watched bodies start to drop again. Sykes held on but went to the locker room before halftime arrived and before the game ended. Ariel Atkins was hit in the face in the third quarter and was bleeding from her nose as she walked off the court with a towel over her head. She did not return and is scheduled to have an X-ray, but Coach Eric Thibault didn’t think she had suffered a concussion. Earlier in the third quarter, Shakira Austin landed hard on the hip that caused her to miss nearly two months and headed to the locker room. She returned to the sideline and was available, but the team decided to be careful and sit her. Even Elena Delle Donne got stiff at one point but was able to play through it.

The week began with celebrations that the Mystics were fully healthy for the first time since early June, but that shifted after those in Washington jerseys continually hit the floor.

“That’s why I don’t want to talk about it. It doesn’t last,” Thibault said after the game.

Delle Donne added: “It sucks for them. Mainly just feeling awful for them.”

Before the game, Atkins specifically noted the need to start fast in the three games on this Western road trip, and the exact opposite happened. The Mystics were down 40-30 at halftime as Aces star A’ja Wilson poured in 19 points in those opening 20 minutes, including 14 in a first quarter in which the Aces led 24-14. There was a feeling the Aces (31-6) would run away with the game as Washington shot just 29.4 percent before halftime, including going 2 for 12 from behind the arc, but the Mystics found a way to make it competitive.

Thibault thought the Aces made some adjustments to put the Mystics’ help defense in bad spots, but ultimately he thought it would have been a closer game had a few more shots fallen. The team finished with a 39.4 shooting percentage.

“We had a bad first quarter, and it’s basically the difference in the game,” Thibault said. “They made some runs. We made some runs. You don’t have a lot of margin for error when you come in here.”

Outside of a 3-2 lead, the Mystics trailed the entire game until they used an 11-2 third-quarter run to take a 54-53 advantage. The Aces immediately responded with an 11-5 run to snatch the lead back and go into the fourth quarter up 64-59. Washington scored seven straight to open the fourth quarter and retake the lead, but Vegas punched back with Wilson and Alysha Clark headlining a 16-4 stretch run to go up 80-71. The Aces never trailed again.

Elena Delle Donne scored 17 points, and Sykes added 16. Natasha Cloud had 12 points and five assists.

“Overall, we just didn’t make shots tonight,” Cloud said. “Yeah, we started off slow, but we got back into the game [and] the next three quarters we were fine. We just weren’t knocking down shots tonight. And then to finish a game without [Atkins] or Shakira, that’s tough.”

The last time the Mystics were in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, Wilson dropped what was then a career-high 40 points en route to an Aces victory. The home team, however, had dropped their previous two — in Washington and New York — and were surely fired up for their first game back in Vegas since Aug. 19.

Wilson led the Aces with 26 points and 11 rebounds, and Chelsea Gray scored 21 points. Kelsey Plum finished with 12 points and 10 assists, while former Mystic Alysha Clark scored 11 points off the bench.

“They’re a great offensive team, especially on their home court, especially coming off of two losses,” Delle Donne said. “You know you’re going to get their absolute best, and they made some adjustments.

“I think they saw the last game how we were able to kind of pack it in and draw a crowd on A’ja, so they spread the floor with their shooters really far away. So we were kind of in between being able to help on A’ja or helping too much and then they can kick it out for threes.”

Here’s what else to know about Thursday’s loss:

The loss dropped the Mystics from fifth in the standings to seventh. They have the same 17-19 record as the Atlanta Dream and Minnesota Lynx, but both of those teams hold tiebreakers over Washington. The Mystics host the Dream in the second-to-last game of the regular season.

The Mystics head to Los Angeles for the second game of their three-game road trip. They face a Sparks team that is the first team out of the playoffs on Sunday.

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