With the deadline to cut WNBA rosters to 11 only four days away, the Washington Mystics used their preseason finale before 6,540 at Delta Center tonight to sit the starters and evaluate players who are fighting for roster spots. The Utah Starzz, on the other hand, used its four best players more than 29 minutes apiece.
The result was a sloppy effort by the outgunned Mystics, who finished their preseason with an 82-72 loss. They open their second season Thursday night at MCI Center against the Charlotte Sting after going 2-1 in the preseason.
Seldom-used rookie forward Monica Maxwell made a good impression by scoring 14 points, all in the first half, and Shalonda Enis, the only Mystics regular to get more than 23 minutes, led the team with 17. But Washington could do little to contain former American Basketball League MVP Natalie Williams, who dominated the game with 31 points on 11-of-15 shooting and 11 rebounds.
"The only place I really felt outmanned was wherever Natalie Williams was," said Mystics assistant Melissa McFerrin, who is coaching the team while head coach Nancy Darsch tends to family business following the death of her mother. "We simply didn't have an answer for her."
But McFerrin was happy with the Mystics' effort, particularly since several players knew their jobs may be at stake.
"They played for the Mystics and not for themselves," McFerrin said of the non-regulars. "I was proud of them."
Starting center Alessandra Santos de Oliveira played only 11 minutes and the Starzz took advantage, forcing the ball inside at every opportunity. Utah ended up with a 50-14 advantage in points in the paint, mostly on layups by Williams and Adrienne Goodson (21 points).
Newcomer Heather Owen picked up five fouls guarding Williams, but McFerrin said she liked her effort. "She made her work. . . . She forced her into tough shots. We wanted more help from the perimeter, but didn't get there," McFerrin said.
The rookie who made the best case for claiming a roster spot was Maxwell, who had played a total of five minutes in the two previous preseason games. Playing on the home court of another Louisiana Tech star, Karl Malone, Maxwell energized the Mystics when they needed it most.
Trailing 34-23 late in the first half, Maxwell kept Utah from pulling away by hitting eight straight points on a pair of three-pointers and two foul shots.
"I gained a lot of confidence when I knocked down that first one," the rookie said. "I started getting open looks, and I have to make those."
"She's a great scorer," credited McFerrin.
Chamique Holdsclaw scored 13 points and added eight rebounds, to the delight of a few dozen children holding "We Love Chamique" signs, and Nikki McCray scored 11.
But all anybody could talk about afterward was Williams, a native of Utah who played 36 minutes before the home crowd.
"I already feel the soreness coming on," said Enis, who took a turn guarding her former ABL foe. "Once she pins you down there, you can't get around her. She's just a really strong player -- she has the strength of a man."
With Washington's 16-member roster due to be trimmed to the WNBA limit of 11 before Thursday's season opener, the Mystics sat the starters, spread the minutes around in their preseason finale and let others make one final case for making the squad.
The result was a sloppy game by a team that rarely resembled the squad that will play at MCI Center. But what the Mystics lacked in cohesiveness and familiarity, they made up in energy and hustle, keeping the game close against a Utah squad that played its normal rotation.
Turnovers, a Mystics problem through their first two preseason games, continued to plague the offense. The Starzz forced 23, the third straight game of more than 20 for Washington.
With Santos de Oliveira sitting out so backup candidates Owen, Jennifer Whittle and Heidi Burge could make their cases for roster spots, the Starzz rarely settled for outside shots.
Box score on Page D14