The Washington Mystics have been a wildly inconsistent team this season. They have shown themselves capable of leading the league's best team, the Houston Comets, by 10 points in the second half, but have lost to the previously winless Cleveland Rockers.
Despite having two of the league's most gifted offensive players, Chamique Holdsclaw (18.3 points per game) and Nikki McCray (17.9), the Mystics have struggled to score at critical times, one of the reasons they have won only two of their 10 games and have the second-worst record in the league. As they play the New York Liberty tonight at MCI Center, the Mystics are still looking for their first home victory.
Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch said she has realized recently how her team's youth has played a role in the rocky start. The Mystics have a combined five years of WNBA experience, while Eastern Conference-leading New York (7-3) has 14. Darsch, whose coaching style tends to be precise and intense, has realized that a hard-nosed approach wasn't helping the team.
"There have been times this season where during a timeout I have been very animated or gotten on a player, and that hasn't helped," Darsch said. "They're too young, too sensitive, or they're trying too hard. They need more a calming, more a correction. I've tried to be more calming, more direct, less verbose, more concise. They're looking for help. They need help."
Every game, the Mystics seem to emerge and submerge. The lack of a physical presence in the low post and a reliable three-point shooter have been obvious. There have been several times this season when a three-pointer would have won a game, but there was no one capable of making such a shot. The team is next to last in the league in three-point shooting percentage (28 percent).
In the first few games of the season, center Murriel Page was nearly automatic inside, shooting at a 70 percent clip. But she has shot 13 of 30 (43 percent) in the last five games, and forward Shalonda Enis has shot 15 of 41 (37 percent) during that stretch.
"I think we're a little anxious," Darsch said. "We want to tie it up now. We want to score now. We want the big shot in now. Everything gets a little bit harder for us."
Because the Mystics have been dominated down low by physical centers, Darsch started mixing in a zone defense. Against Sacramento, the strategy worked against Monarchs center Yolanda Griffith, holding her to five points, well below her 19.6 average, but the Mystics got burned on the perimeter. Monarchs guard Ruthie Bolton-Holifield scored 34 points, and the Monarchs rallied from a three-point deficit late in the game to win.
"We were looking for help on the block because most of the teams that we have played against have had a center that has really gone to work on us in the low block," Darsch said. "We had been getting help on defense from here and help from there, but sooner or later they figure out where the help is coming from and they make you pay. This 2-3 [zone] has helped us with our inside defense."
The move has seemed to put a lot of the Mystics in their defensive element.
"A lot of players aren't comfortable in a zone, but this team is," Darsch said. "They like the fact that somebody for sure has their back. While that's supposed to be true in man [defense], it hasn't been. Maybe that again comes back to the youth."
More than anything, Darsch says she has loosened up a little in hopes that her team will as well.
"We're young, and I think we need that poise, that leadership, that calm," Darsch said. "We need to know that the shot that we're taking in the second half is the same shot that we took in the first half. One or two things here and there make the game a lot different."
Data: vs. New York Liberty.
Where: MCI Center.
When: 7:30 p.m.
Records: Liberty 7-3, Mystics 2-8.
Injuries: Liberty C Kym Hampton (right knee, right index finger), C Venus Lacy (Achilles' tendon), C Tamika Whitmore (left ankle sprain) are day-to-day; F Rebecca Lobo (knee) and G Carolyn Young (knee) are on the injured list; Mystics F Heather Owen (shoulder) is on the injured list.
CAPTION: Nancy Darsch says she realizes a hard-nosed approach isn't helping her inexperienced team. "They're looking for help. They need help," she said.