Mystics edge Liberty to move a win away from Eastern Conference regular season title

If Crystal Langhorne, left, Marissa Coleman and the Mystics beat Atlanta on Sunday, they'll capture the East's top seed in the playoffs.
If Crystal Langhorne, left, Marissa Coleman and the Mystics beat Atlanta on Sunday, they'll capture the East's top seed in the playoffs. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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By Katie Carrera
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 21, 2010; 1:23 AM

As she drove to the basket with less than 13 seconds remaining in regulation, Lindsey Harding took the path of greatest resistance toward the basket through a cluttered mass of outstretched arms and blue New York Liberty jerseys. The play wasn't meant for her, but somewhere in the muck, Harding found just enough space to emerge above the mass of bodies for a layup that gave the Washington Mystics a precarious one-point lead with 8.8 seconds left.

In the furious final seconds, New York's Janel McCarville missed a shot from the corner and as Liberty veteran Taj McWilliams-Franklin grabbed at the rebound, Matee Ajavon ripped the ball from her grasp. New York point guard Leilani Mitchell scrambled to gain possession and took one final shot that rolled across the rim as time expired to seal a 75-74 win for the Mystics.

"I just kept looking at the clock thinking, please let them miss. Just please miss," said Washington Coach Julie Plank who began jumping up and down beside the scorers' table as the clock ran out. "I would always want to have our defense out on the floor at the end of a game like this. This was a great win for us."

The victory, which snapped New York's 10-game winning streak, creates a three-way tie for first place in the Eastern Conference between the Mystics, Liberty and Indiana Fever all with records of 21-12. But because Washington holds the tiebreak of a better head-to-head record against both teams, it is the No. 1 team in the East heading into the final day of the WNBA regular season on Sunday.

If the Mystics defeat Atlanta on Sunday it will clinch the Eastern Conference title and the top seed in the playoffs along with home-court advantage. Should Washington lose to the Dream (19-14) and both Indiana and New York win their last contests, the combination would drop the Mystics to third place.

"We control everything," Harding said. "That's been the goal since the beginning. We want to finish first or second and get that home-court advantage. We play so well at home, it's the biggest boost for all of us. Tonight the crowd was great and it helped us all to get through."

By the final two minutes it was hard to tell that Washington had once held a 12-point lead on the Liberty. The Mystics' offense had dried up, failing to tally a field goal in just more than four minutes in the fourth quarter just as Cappie Pondexter, who led all scorers with 28 points, launched a desperate individual effort to try to keep her team's winning streak alive.

When Pondexter (8 for 14) banked a jump shot off the backboard to create a 74-73 edge with 12.6 seconds remaining, the all-star had scored 10 of New York's previous 14 points. But that basket would also be the Liberty's last.

The tension that rose in the playoff-type game - with potentially home-court advantage, the regular season conference title and top seed in the playoffs at stake - didn't subside after the final buzzer. At center court, members of both teams were involved in a fracas during which Pondexter was pulled away twice while yelling back at the group.

It's unclear if a punch was thrown, which would result in an immediate one-game suspension per WNBA rules regardless if the blow made contact. WNBA officials would not make the game's officials available for comment following the contest. When asked about the incident Pondexter said: "I don't know what you're talking about."

l SILVER STARS 75, FEVER 61: Becky Hammon and Edwige Lawson-Wade combined for 19 fourth-quarter points and San Antonio all but clinched a playoff spot with a victory over visiting Indiana.

After the Fever erased a 13-point third-quarter deficit to tie the game entering the fourth, Hammon took over. She hit two three-pointers and a free throw in a 10-0 run that put the Silver Stars back in control.

San Antonio (13-20) ended a two-game losing streak. A loss by Los Angeles later Friday night would give the Silver Stars' their fourth straight postseason appearance.

l SUN 78, SKY 71: Renee Montgomery scored 20 points and visiting Connecticut held off Chicago.

The win was the second straight for the Sun (17-16) which will miss the playoffs for the second straight year. Epiphanny Prince scored 19 points for the Sky (14-19), which was eliminated last week.

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