Their song, "Rocky Top," was blaring throughout Thompson-Boling Arena as Chamique Holdsclaw and Nikki McCray and their teammates celebrated the Washington Mystics' 68-64 preseason victory over the Houston Comets with a midcourt dance called the Bankhead Bounce.
Tonight, however, the song belonged to every Mystic, even those who did not attend the University of Tennessee as Holdsclaw and McCray did. That's because even though Holdsclaw and McCray scored Washington's last 21 points -- with McCray hitting a game-winning jump shot with 3.2 seconds left -- this Mystics team feels it finally is coming together.
"This year, we have a vision," said McCray, who had 24 points. "Last year, we weren't so sure. This year, we have a new group of players and coaches who want to play every day."
After struggling offensively for most of the night (21 turnovers, 43 percent shooting and 13-for-22 free throw shooting), the Mystics pushed aside several Houston leads, including a five-point deficit with 1 minute 47 seconds left, to earn their second consecutive preseason win before 9,279 fans.
The former Tennessee stars were the only Mystics to score in double figures, with Holdsclaw finishing with 20 points on 8-for-20 shooting. Holdsclaw also had game highs of 10 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 blocks.
But Holdsclaw and McCray were quick to point out that they got help in several ways. Players such as guards Rita Williams (two steals) and Itoro Umoh (two rebounds) assisted in forcing two-time WNBA most valuable player Cynthia Cooper into 1-for-14 shooting. Post players Alessandra Santos de Oliveira, Shalonda Enis and Murriel Page helped the Mystics grab a 38-22 edge in rebounding.
"We played together as a team," Holdsclaw said. "Everyone is looking at the Washington Mystics: Are they going to be a great team, as far as going out there playing together? Or are they going to go out there and be individuals? I think tonight we showed that we can feed off each other.
"Everyone out there is involved -- even the people who didn't play were on the bench really excited and cheering. And that's what makes a great team. One through 12, everybody has to contribute. I saw the desire in everyone's eyes."
That desire may have been most important when the Mystics trailed 64-59 with 1:47 to go. Holdsclaw made her third three-pointer to pull the Mystics within two points, then after Houston's Sonja Henning missed a three-pointer, Holdsclaw put back a shot by McCray to tie the score at 64 with 58.5 seconds remaining.
On Houston's next possession, Santos de Oliveira tipped away a pass by Cooper, and McCray grabbed the ball with 33 seconds remaining. The Mystics called a timeout with 14.5 seconds left to set up a play. Point guard Andrea Nagy inbounded the ball to Page, who passed to McCray. With the clock winding down, McCray drove left and shot a fadeaway jump shot that went in for a 66-64 lead with 3.2 seconds left.
The Comets received the ball at half court after calling a timeout, but when Tina Thompson threw an inbounds pass across the court to Cooper, Page put her hand up to disrupt Cooper's concentration. The ball rolled off Cooper's hand and out of bounds, and McCray made two free throws with 0.3 seconds left for the final score.
"We struggled a lot all night," said Mystics assistant coach Melissa McFerrin. "We talked about that a lot in the locker room -- about how we may not score a lot of points, but if we can rely on our defense and rebound the basketball, we're going to be okay. And you know what? They bought into it."
Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch did not make the trip because of the death of her mother earlier this week.
Holdsclaw got off to an inauspicious start, largely because she had to defend Sheryl Swoopes, who had 30 points. Holdsclaw, who recently had a Knoxville street named after her, did not attempt a shot in the first 4 1/2 minutes, and missed her first three shots. But she gave the crowd some excitement in a battle with Swoopes in the last 1:45 of the first half, playing a role in 11 consecutive points.
After Swoopes made a deep three-pointer with Holdsclaw lunging out to her, Tennessee's all-time leading scorer had seemingly had enough. Seventeen seconds after Swoopes's shot, Holdsclaw took the ball down court and swished a three-pointer to pull the Mystics to 27-21, with 1:45 left in the half.
After a Houston turnover, Holdsclaw dribbled the length of the court at full speed before quickly stopping and making a jump shot to cut the lead to four points. Swoopes tried to respond with a jump shot, but when she missed, Holdsclaw grabbed the rebound and headed down court. Holdsclaw was tempted to shoot again, but as she drove to the basket for a contested layup, she found McCray open in the left corner. McCray took the pass and made a three-pointer that pulled the Mystics within one point with 48 seconds left in the half.
Swoopes maneuvered inside for a basket to push the Comets' lead to 29-26, but Holdsclaw had another response, sinking a second three-pointer to tie the score with 15.2 seconds left.
CAPTION: Houston Comets' Tina Thompson defends Chamique Holdsclaw (20 points). Mystics' Nikki McCray had 24 points.