In WNBA playoff opener, Washington Mystics' defensive struggles lead to 95-90 loss to Atlanta Dream

By Kathy Orton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010; 12:30 AM

The Washington Mystics came into the Eastern Conference semifinals with a franchise-best 22 wins, a six-game winning streak and the top seed in the East.

The one thing they forgot to bring was their defense.

Washington's defensive shortcomings led to its 95-90 loss to the fourth-seeded Atlanta Dream on Wednesday night before 10,322 at Verizon Center.

"I was very disappointed with our defensive effort," Coach Julie Plank said. "You can't give up 95 points. . . . Whether we were in man or we were in zone, their dribble penetration hurt us a lot. We were fouling too much, and they pretty much got what they wanted."

After fighting and scrapping for home-court advantage late in the season, the Mystics squandered that advantage and face elimination from the playoffs on Friday when they play Game 2 in Atlanta.

The Mystics, who haven't won a playoff game since Sept. 25, 2004, have suffered seven consecutive postseason losses.

This game set up as a classic matchup of offense vs. defense. Washington had held its opponents to a league-low 73.3 points per game during the regular season, while Atlanta boasted the second-most prolific offense in the WNBA (85.4 ppg). On this night, offense won.

The Dream, which had stumbled into the playoffs, losing six of its previous seven, looked more ready for the postseason than Washington. Atlanta sank 53.5 percent of its shots, scoring easily and often against the Mystics.

Angel McCoughtry led the way for the Dream, scoring 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting, as four players scored in double figures for Atlanta.

Washington had five players score in double figures, led by Marissa Coleman's career-high 18 points.

After falling behind by 17 points in the second half, Washington's dramatic fourth-quarter comeback against a team it had beaten in three of four meetings this season proved too little, too late. Coleman scored 14 of her 18 points in the fourth quarter to propel the rally. Her three-point play capped a 10-0 run by the Mystics. She sank a three-pointer a little more than a minute later to pull Washington to 71-66.

"My main goal and role is just to bring energy and try to help out on defense," Coleman said. "We were down and had nothing-to-lose type of thing."

Matee Ajavon drew the Mystics within 77-75 with 4 minutes 34 seconds to play when she made all three of her free throws after getting fouled shooting a three-pointer. But Washington could get no closer.

The Mystics were thrown off by Atlanta's lineup change to start the game. Former Mystic Coco Miller and Armintie Price - neither of whom had started a game this season - took the places of Erika de Souza and Shalee Lehning.

Flustered by the Dream's four-guard lineup, Washington missed its first five shots and turned the ball over twice in the first four minutes. The Mystics' only point came from a free throw by Lindsey Harding.

Crystal Langhorne finally scored Washington's first basket, making a layup 4:19 into the game.

By then, the Mystics trailed, 10-3.

"They threw some different things at us," Langhorne said. "They just outplayed us. They beat us in transition. They pushed the ball really well, and our defense wasn't up to par."

Nakia Sanford entered the game and gave the Mystics a huge boost off the bench. Almost as soon as she stepped on the floor, she put back an errant Langhorne shot. She had another putback during Washington's scoring surge that pulled the Mystics to 12-10 and forced Atlanta to call a timeout.

Sanford scored six points and grabbed three rebounds in eight first-half minutes.

Katie Smith gave Washington its first lead with a three-pointer that put the Mystics ahead, 17-14.

Although Washington went into the second quarter clinging to a 19-17 lead, the game quickly got away from the Mystics. Harding gave Washington its final lead of the first half, sinking a three-point shot that put the Mystics up, 24-23.

Then McCoughtry, Miller and Iziane Castro Marques took over, scoring 20 of the Dream's next 21 points. The trio was in fine form, scoring almost at will against Washington. Nearly everything they threw at the basket went in. They combined for 39 first-half points. Atlanta's 48 points were the most given up by Washington in a first half this season.

When she was introduced before the game, Miller received warm applause from the Mystics fans.

Miller spent eight years in Washington before being waived by the team in 2009.

Her comfort level with Verizon Center was evident. Miller went 4 of 6 from the floor for 10 points in the first half. Miller, who averaged 3.1 points per game this season, finished with a season-high 21 points.

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