By Jon Gallo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 2, 2006
It may be August, but to the Washington Mystics it feels like June. That's when they were defeating the WNBA's best teams and establishing themselves as a contender to win their first championship.
The Mystics returned to their early season form last night in an 84-74 victory over the Los Angeles Sparks at Verizon Center. The performance showed why the Mystics were tied atop the Eastern Conference standings before several of their top players suffered injuries. But the effort also indicated they are peaking at the opportune time.
"This is exactly the way you want to be playing with the playoffs coming up," forward DeLisha Milton-Jones said. "You could just feel the closeness we had with each other out there on the court, just like we had at the beginning of the season. I just pray to God that we can play like this every game."
Two days after the Mystics (16-13) needed to hold on to defeat Charlotte -- one of the league's worst teams -- they surged to a victory over the Sparks, who own the league's best record (23-7). The win pulled the Mystics 1 1/2 games behind Indiana (17-11), which lost to Detroit last night, for the third seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Alana Beard posted a game-high 29 points on 11-of-17 shooting and nine rebounds and Milton-Jones added 18 points and seven rebounds to power Washington to just its fourth victory over the Sparks in 17 meetings. Los Angeles forwards Chamique Holdsclaw and Christi Thomas each scored 12 points to lead six Sparks who finished in double figures.
"Right now, we don't care how many points each of has because the most important thing is we beat a great team," said point guard Nikki Teasley, who had nine points and a game-high six assists. "We expect to play like this every game."
Trailing 56-48 midway through the third quarter, the Mystics rallied. Washington took advantage with Lisa Leslie, the Sparks' perennial all-star center, on the bench in foul trouble. Washington scored five driving layups and two free throws during a 12-5 run-to cut the lead to 61-60 entering the fourth quarter.
The Mystics, who for the past month have made a habit of falling apart during the fourth quarter, refused to fold after a Leslie's jump shot gave the Sparks a 70-67 lead with 5 minutes 21 seconds remaining.
Forward Nakia Sanford made a pair of free throws and two possessions later, Milton-Jones swished a baseline jumper and Sanford followed with a layup. After a Sparks turnover, Milton-Jones delivered the knockout blow by making a long jump from the left wing for a 75-70 lead with 2:41 remaining.
"This was a defining game for our team because we showed we could close a good team out," said Beard, whose team's four-game winning streak is its longest since 2004. "We've seem to always keep the game close and then mistakes at the end and lose. But we weren't going to let that happen this time."
The key to Washington's success was containing Mwadi Mabika, Leslie and former Mystic all-star forward Holdsclaw, who entered the game collectively averaging nearly 45 points, but were held to 32.
"Everyone knows to beat LA you have to contain their 'Big Three,' " Adubato said. "I thought our defensive intensity was incredible."
The first quarter resembled a track meet, as both teams pushed the ball down the court with moderate success. The Mystics shot six of 19, but the Sparks made seven of 18 shots to take a 16-15 into the second quarter.
The Mystics played better in the second quarter. Washington led by as many as eight points, but Los Angeles trimmed the lead to one in the final seconds before Tamara James ended the half with a three-pointer for a 40-38 lead at intermission.
Mystics Note: Beard, Minnesota forward Seimone Augustus and Sacramento center Yolanda Griffith were named to the U.S. national team that will compete in next month's world championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The trio will join eight WNBA players who were selected in May: Houston's Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, Indiana's Tamika Catchings, Seattle's Sue Bird, Phoenix's Diana Taurasi, Detroit's Katie Smith, Washington's Milton-Jones and Los Angeles's Leslie. The final roster spot for Team USA, which is seeking its fourth consecutive world championship, will be awarded to either a college or WNBA player, said Renee Brown, chairman for USA Basketball's women's senior national team.
· SHOCK 70, FEVER 66: Reserve Kara Braxton had a season-high 16 points to lead Detroit to a win at home over Indiana.
The Shock (19-8) has won five of six. Swin Cash and Katie Smith scored 12 each for Detroit, which got 24 points from its reserve players.
Tamika Catchings led Indiana (17-11) with 22 points. Tan White, who had nine points, the only Fever reserve to score.
· SUN 66, LIBERTY 52: Asjha Jones had 22 points, tying her career high for the second straight game, and leading Connecticut over visiting New York.
Margo Dydek and Taj McWilliams-Franklin each grabbed 10 rebounds for the Sun (22-6), which extended its win streak to eight games, matching the longest in franchise history. New York (7-21) had its three-game win streak snapped.
· STORM 77, LYNX 75: In Minneapolis, Betty Lennox swished a three-pointer with 18 seconds to play to give Seattle (15-14) the win. Minnesota has lost its last four to fall to 9-19.
· MERCURY 90, SKY 70: Diana Taurasi scored 29 points to help visiting Phoenix break a four-game losing streak. The Mercury (12-16) is 2 1/2 games behind Seattle for the West's fourth and final postseason berth. Chicago is 4-24.
· STING 68, SILVER STARS 65: Tangela Smith hit a three-pointer with four seconds remaining as Charlotte (9-20) defeated host San Antonio (12-16).
· MONARCHS 74, COMETS 62: DeMya Walker and Yolanda Griffith each scored 16 points and host Sacramento Monarchs clinched a playoff spot.
Sacramento (18-11) is in second in the Western Conference, two games up on third-place Houston (16-13). Both teams have five games remaining.