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Playing in Peak Form, Mystics Stop Storm

Mystics 72, Storm 69

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 8, 2004; Page D06

Had it not been for their distinguishing uniforms, you would have confused the Washington Mystics for their opponent, the Seattle Storm, last night.

It was the Mystics, not the dominant Storm, who showcased balanced scoring, a deep bench and an explosive offense. It was the Mystics -- often unreliable and usually inconsistent -- who played their best basketball in the game's final minutes, holding on for an unlikely, 72-69 win at MCI Center.

Chamique Holdsclaw (23 points, 9 rebounds) shoots over Seattle's Sheri Sam. "This is about as good as I've ever seen us play," Holdsclaw said. (John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)

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For one night, the Mystics, not the 10-5 Storm, looked like the WNBA powerhouse -- and felt like one, too.

"Something like this just lets you know there's not a team in this league we can't beat," Coach Michael Adams said. "We can take anybody as long as we play this well."

In stealing their biggest win of the season, the Mystics looked like an altogether different team from the one that has jolted to a disappointing 7-8 record.

Adams, normally calm and reserved, paced near the bench and hollered at officials until assistant coach Linda Hargrove pulled him back. Rookie guard Alana Beard finally resisted the jumper and drove fearlessly to the basket, scoring nine points. Center Nakia Sanford, a non-factor all season, dominated the lane and scored a career-high 12 points.

And, of course, Chamique Holdsclaw contributed more than her fair share, scoring 23 points and grabbing nine rebounds.

"We had the best of both worlds," said Holdsclaw, who sprained her left thumb early in the second half but kept playing. "Everybody took it to a different level tonight, so we looked like a different team. This is about as good as I've ever seen us play."

The game was tied at 63 with 2 minutes 30 seconds left when Tamicha Jackson made back-to-back jumpers and Stacey Dales-Schuman hit a layup to give Washington a somewhat-comfortable lead. But shaky free throw shooting and lackluster rebounding kept the game in doubt until Seattle's Sue Bird missed a 40-foot heave at the buzzer.

"I can't even tell you how nervous I felt," Sanford said, "because it never should have been that close."

Washington seized control with a 13-2 run to start the second half, turning a five-point lead into a 16-point advantage.

"It happened so fast," Seattle Coach Anne Donovan said, "that I barely even noticed."

The lead slipped away just as quickly, though. Thanks in large part to stellar outside shooting from Sheri Sam (16 points), Seattle raced back before falling short in the game's final minutes.

The Mystics came into the game with a simple plan: Feed the ball to Holdsclaw and prevent Seattle star Lauren Jackson from scoring.

They accomplished neither in the first half -- which made their 35-30 halftime lead all the more improbable. Jackson moved effortlessly under the basket and poured in 20 points; Holdsclaw struggled against double-teams and scored six. Yet, the Mystics survived.

Little-noticed center Sanford scored 12 points early, exceeding her previous career high of 10. More important, the Mystics forced Seattle to turn the ball over four times in a row late in the half, which led to a 10-0 run.

"The whole game, we just had everyone going," Beard said. "Seattle might be good, but we showed that we can do all the same things they can."

• SPARKS 73, MERCURY 71: Lisa Leslie's layup with 4.4 seconds to play gave host Los Angeles the win.

Leslie finished with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Mwadi Mabika added 14 points as the Sparks (12-6) used their fourth consecutive victory and ninth in 10 games to move into first place in the Western Conference.

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