Washington Mystics Take On Indiana Fever in Game 1 of WNBA Playoffs

Tamika Catchings averaged 20.5 points against the Mystics.
Tamika Catchings averaged 20.5 points against the Mystics. (By Ron Hoskins -- Nbae Via Getty Images)
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By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009

Alana Beard sat on the training table in a corner of the practice court at Verizon Center on Tuesday with her homework for the week close by. Four DVDs, one for each of the Washington Mystics' four regular season losses to the Indiana Fever, that she would pore over in the coming days in an effort to find any little adjustment that might give her team an edge.

The sixth-year guard has been to the WNBA playoffs before, only to be bounced from the first round both times. Beard wants to make sure that this year the Mystics do more than simply squeak into the postseason.

"The playoffs are a new season. You lose, you go home and that's the attitude you take into it," Beard said. "I've been to the playoffs [two] times and I'm not satisfied just making it to the playoffs. I feel like the teams before have just been satisfied. We have to take this organization to the next level."

Despite missing four of Washington's final six regular season games with a sprained left ankle, Beard is expected to play and will likely start when the Mystics host top-seeded Indiana (22-12) at Comcast Center on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the first game of the Eastern Conference semifinals. It's the franchise's fifth trip to the playoffs but its first postseason appearance since 2006.

The game is being held in College Park because of a scheduling conflict at Verizon Center, the team's regular season home.

After a season of growing pains, the revamped Mystics (16-18) clinched a postseason berth and achieved the primary goal the players and front-office staff set forth at the beginning of training camp in May. While making the playoffs is a significant step for the franchise, Washington must face a foe that is more seasoned at almost every position in the Fever, which swept the four-game season series.

"They have experience," Mystics Coach Julie Plank said of the Fever. "They've been to the playoffs before, they've been to the Eastern Conference finals. They've had their same core group and that makes a big difference. But each time we've played them we've learned a little bit more about ourselves."

First there was an 82-70 defeat on July 21 when perennial all-star and premier forward Tamika Catchings posted a season-high 28 points. On July 28, Fever sharpshooter Katie Douglas torched the Mystics for a career-high 34 points in Indiana's 85-81 win.

In the third meeting, on Aug. 2, Washington crumbled in the fourth quarter, allowing Indiana to score 33 points in the frame en route to an 87-79 win. Most recently, the Mystics shot 28 percent in a 72-61 loss on Sept. 6.

Among the crucial adjustments the Mystics must make for this series is finding a way to stifle Catchings, who has averaged 20.5 points per game against Washington this year. The Mystics also must limit their mistakes. Indiana thrives on a high-risk, pressurized defense that has been tremendously successful against the Mystics, who have averaged 18.7 turnovers in the four games between the two teams. The Fever enters the postseason with a league-best 11 steals per game.

"Our offense absolutely has to take care of the ball," Mystics forward Crystal Langhorne said. "A lot of those games we just had little spurts of turnovers, and we really need to control those because that gives them easy baskets and easy momentum. We can't afford to do that now."

The unenviable task of containing the 6-foot-1 Catchings will likely fall to small forwards Monique Currie and Marissa Coleman.

"She's probably the hardest player I've ever had to guard," Coleman said. "She's constantly moving, she does the little things. She crashes the glass every time just on offense, and on defense she's a hard matchup."

But although Indiana, with two former champions in Tully Bevilaqua and Tamecka Dixon on its all-star-laden roster, may have an extreme edge in playoff experience, the Fever must also shoulder the burden of expectations. Washington has not been picked by any pundits to steal this series, and the Mystics wouldn't have it any other way.

"We are very young, but what do we have to lose?" point guard Lindsey Harding asked. "They were the number one team. They have these expectations on them in the media, in the league and everything. We come in saying, hey you might have swept us, but when you think about it, they weren't all blowouts. . . . We know we can compete with them, but I don't really feel any pressure. We're the underdogs."

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