The smiles and hugs were able to appear for the Washington Mystics tonight, especially for former New York residents Chamique Holdsclaw and Coach Nancy Darsch, even if the Mystics' first victory of the season came later than either of them had hoped.
But after two losses the Mystics finally put on an impressive show, right around the corner from Broadway, defeating the previously unbeaten New York Liberty, 83-61, before 12,563 at Madison Square Garden.
"I'm so excited right now, because our team stayed focused and played well," Holdsclaw said after totaling 20 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. "We started 0-2, and probably no one expected us to go and beat a great defensive team like New York. We needed this as a momentum-builder."
The fans came to cheer Holdsclaw, who grew up 30 minutes from the arena, and boo Darsch, who was fired after coaching the Liberty for two seasons. The crowd did both. But it also witnessed the first solid game for the Mystics (1-2).
Suddenly, there was an inside game for Washington. There were crisp passes and strong defense. The Washington stars, Holdsclaw and Nikki McCray (24 points), were back after a sub-par outing against Houston on Saturday, and the team got much-needed assistance from 6-foot-5 center Alessandra Santos de Oliveira (10 points, eight rebounds).
And a win at Madison Square Garden? Yes, this was sweet, although Darsch did not want to bask in it.
"Any time that you're 0-2, you're anxious to get your first win," Darsch said. "We would have preferred to get it at home in Washington last week, but we'll take it."
Beating the Liberty "was bittersweet," Darsch finally decided.
When asked about being booed during pregame introductions, Darsch quipped, "Were those boos I heard? I don't know why they're booing me, I didn't leave here."
Things were totally different for Holdsclaw, the velvet-smooth forward from Queens. In her last visit to Madison Square Garden, during her senior season at Tennessee against Rutgers, Holdsclaw scored only six points on 2-of-9 shooting. Tonight, she made 6 of 15 shots, but went 8 for 8 from the free throw line and grabbed a game-high four offensive rebounds.
After the game, an old song titled "Native New Yorker" by Odyssey blared as Holdsclaw walked around the court shaking hands and went to hug her college coach, Pat Summitt, who was working the game as a commentator for ESPN.
"It's definitely like a dream come true," Holdsclaw said. "Our team goes and plays well, Nikki does her thing and our leadership is there. Personally, just to win one at home is icing on the cake."
The Mystics are hoping tonight's game will signify a turnaround for a team that had struggled in its first two games to shoot well, run its offense correctly and play basic defense. All of that was rectified tonight. The Mystics shot a season-high 49 percent and held the Liberty (2-1) to 34.8 percent. Washington committed 15 turnovers, New York had 13, and the Mystics' defense likely won the game.
"This means a great deal to us," Mystics point guard Andrea Nagy said. "We had the intensity, and we had the excellent defense. We talked about those things before the game, and we executed them."
The Mystics led 29-23 at halftime, but opened with a second-half flurry that produced a 16-6 run, and gave Washington a 45-29 lead with 13 minutes 44 seconds left, and caused the Liberty to become frustrated.
A layup by New York's Michele VanGorp made the score 49-38 until McCray's first three-pointer made the score 52-38.
CAPTION: In her first game as a pro at Madison Square Garden, New York native Chamique Holdsclaw, here guarded by Crystal Robinson, scores 20 points.