Latta leads Mystics to Game 1 upset

Ivory Latta has matured as a floor leader and decision-maker in her seven seasons as a WNBA player. But one thing hasn't changed a bit about her since women's basketball fans first really got to know her a decade ago as a freshman at North Carolina.

And that's her enthusiasm. The Latta mantra remains the same: "Let's go, baby! Come on, baby! We can do it, baby!"

Indeed, the Mystics can do this. They can win their first playoff series since 2002, when Latta was still in high school in South Carolina. Washington won its WNBA first-round opener 71-56 in Atlanta on Thursday, led by Latta's 14 points and seven assists. She also had six rebounds, as she and the Mystics put the Dream in a real pickle.

Atlanta had the worst regular-season road record -- 4-13 -- of any of the eight teams in the playoffs. Now, the Dream will have to win at Washington on Saturday and come back home for another victory Monday in order to keep their season going.

The Dream lost their final four games of the regular season, and Thursday matched their lowest point total of the season. It was thought that Washington's defense would be the key to this series, and it certainly was in Game 1. Angel McCoughtry led Atlanta with 20 points, but she made just 6-of-20 shots, and the Dream as a team shot a franchise-low 26.7 percent from the field (20 of 75).

Atlanta is going to have to dig very deep to stay alive, but the Dream didn't seem to have that much of a pulse left by game's end Thursday.

Of course, last year by the WNBA postseason, the Mystics were the ones who were pulseless. Their season had long been over well before the playoffs. Then coach Trudi Lacey was relieved of her job, and Washington ended up fourth in the draft lottery.

But it has actually been all forward-moving since then for the Washington franchise. When Connecticut cut loose coach Mike Thibault after last season, the Mystics were all too happy to say, "Thank you! We really needed a coach with a proven track record."

And Thibault, who had strategized against various coaching regimes in Washington during his decade with the Sun, had a very good idea of a key move he wanted to make in his new job: Get Latta.

She'd just had the best season of her WNBA career with Tulsa in 2012, and as a free agent was available to be wooed. Latta said the Shock made a good effort to try to keep her, but after talking to Thibault, she was sold on going to D.C. and turning around a franchise that had won just 11 games combined the previous two seasons.

Here's the thing about Latta: You never, never doubt where her heart is. It's always on the task at hand, and she always takes the most optimistic approach possible to any situation.

Let's put it this way: If Latta were a baseball player, she'd be the one clapping her hands and cheering from the dugout, "Good eye, good eye!" at the batter when her team was down five runs with two outs in the bottom of the ninth.

If she were a golfer, she'd be trailing by six shots with five holes to play thinking, "Just need three birdies and two eagles, and I win this thing!"

Latta helped lead North Carolina to the Women's Final Four twice during her time in Chapel Hill, 2003-07, and then started her WNBA career in Detroit. Then she was in Atlanta for two seasons, but didn't make a WNBA roster at the start of the 2010 season. But later that summer, she was picked up by Tulsa. And that's where she really rounded into form as a WNBA point guard.

Last year she averaged 14.3 points and 3.3 assists for the Shock. This year those numbers are 13.9 and 4.4. And there is almost no way to measure what she brings in energy.

Thursday, Latta set the tone all evening both offensively and defensively, much as she has done all season. And the rest of the Mystics also did their jobs. Post players Crystal Langhorne and Kia Vaughn combined for 24 points and 21 rebounds. Monique Currie added 10 points. And Latta's "Tar Heel little sister" -- rookie guard Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, an undrafted rookie out of UNC -- had 8 points off the bench.

Latta had lots of family present in Atlanta. But she and the Mystics don't want to visit the Peach City anymore this year. They want to end the series Saturday in Washington, and put the Mystics' miseries of the last two seasons even further in the past.