Even with the Seattle Storm shooting 54.5 percent from the field in the fourth quarter, they struggled to create much more space between themselves and the Washington Mystics than the 79-71 final score suggests.
A large part of that was the performance of Mystics guard Matee Ajavon.
Despite questionable shot selection that led to 4-for-14 shooting, the Storm struggled to defend Ajavon's speed on the perimeter, allowing her to sneak into the paint for layups or kick outs to shooters. Ajavon ended up tying Tanisha Wright for a game-high seven assists to go with 13 points while forward Marissa Coleman was a beneficiary of her baseline drives with 16 points on 6-for-9 shooting.
But it was a play early in the fourth quarter with the Storm up 61-59 that probably defines what separate the young Mystics from the veteran Storm.
"We had our opportunities to take the lead, and we settled on some jump shots and missed some shots down the stretch," said Mystics coach Trudi Lacey. "That made the difference in the game."
With a chance to tie the game, but forced to execute with the pressure of the game on their shoulders, the Mystics tried to get a play going into the post but a pass sailed off Nicky Anosike's hand out of bounds. The Storm in turn capitalized as Tanisha Wright found a cutting Swin Cash for a layup plus a foul and made free throw to give the Storm a bit more breathing room with a 64-59 advantage with 7:53 left.
The game kept going back and forth with the Mystics threatening and the Storm re-establishing breathing room, but ultimately the Storm came up with more plays when they needed them to win the game.
"It was maybe three possessions where we could have taken the lead, and we were unable to execute," Ajavon said of the fourth quarter. "Our effort was there, we were aggressive, but it didn't work."
Most importantly, the Storm managed to hold the Mystics to only eight offensive boards, one above a season-low. In keeping the league's best offensive rebounding team off the glass, the Storm held the Mystics without a second-chance point all game. So in addition to execution, holding the Mystics off the boards was particularly critical in the fourth quarter as Washington only shot 29.4 percent with their best second chance scoring opportunities coming at the very end of the game.
But through all that, the Storm kept clicking.
Swin Cash remained steady throughout the game with 20 points while Sue Bird finished with a game-high 22 points while to combine for 42 of the team's 79 points. Meanwhile, Wright was responsible for more of the ball handling and tied Ajavon for a game-high seven assists.
It was certainly not the Storm's best effort in terms of their inability to pull away from a team that was clearly off their game - they didn't get quite the type of balance they had against the Sparks and had a number of defensive lapses.
The Storm head to San Antonio for a 6 p.m. PST game on Thursday on ESPN2 that should have playoff implications.