Three games into a grueling 12-day road trip, the Washington Mystics already look tired. They wore down in the second half tonight at Delta Center and were defeated by the last-place Utah Starzz, 73-61.
After a back-and-forth first half, Washington's defense crumbled and its offense self-destructed, allowing Utah to go on a decisive 31-12 run that dropped the Mystics to 6-15, 1-2 on a six-game western swing.
"It's a mental fatigue more than anything," said Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch, whose team answered a 5 a.m. wakeup call today in Phoenix to fly here. "We don't execute well, we don't shake it off when things aren't going our way, and we make bad decisions. I'd say you could see the fatigue a little bit in the second half."
She could see it from the opening tip. Utah center Margo Dydek, at 7 feet 2 the WNBA's tallest player, knocked the ball to forward LaTonya Johnson, who raced unimpeded for a layup that gave Utah the lead for good.
"C'mon, it's not like you're going to get the tip from Dydek. You have to be thinking that they'll get the tip," Darsch said of the Mystics defense. "But we weren't thinking all the time."
That defense was the best indication of Washington's road-weariness. The Mystics allowed Utah, normally a 42-percent shooting team, to hit a season-high 52 percent of its shots.
It was how the Starzz scored that especially dismayed Darsch. During the first nine minutes of the second half, when Utah outscored Washington 17-5, the Mystics allowed a half-dozen easy layups, including a back-door pass to Utah guard Adrienne Goodson that caught all five Washington players with their backs turned.
Goodson also scored on an unimpeded length-of-the-court rush after yet another jump ball.
"The defensive breakdowns really hurt, but this is a young team that hasn't had much time to practice lately," Darsch said. "When you're on the road, we really miss that repetition, repetition, repetition."
The trip only gets rougher. The Mystics face 13-7 Sacramento on Thursday, then get 13-6 Los Angeles before heading for Detroit. Washington's next game at MCI Center isn't until Aug. 5.
Nikki McCray led Washington with 19 points, but rookie Chamique Holdsclaw hit just 4 of 16 shots and finished with 11 points, well below her 18-point average.
The Starzz put "a player and a half" on Holdsclaw much of the night, said Utah Coach Fred Williams, explaining that someone was always ready to double-team Holdsclaw. The strategy seemed to wear on the rookie forward, but Holdsclaw refused to use fatigue as an excuse.
"This is a professional basketball league. Everybody has to go through it, these two games in two nights," she said. "I thought I had some good shots, some good looks, but they just didn't fall. It was one of those nights."
It was one of those nights for center Murriel Page, too. She was assigned to guard Dydek, who towers a foot above her.
Page did a creditable job, matching Dydek's nine points and even getting the Utah player in first-half foul trouble. But Page managed only one rebound, and eventually fouled out.
Nobody could do much with Utah forward Natalie Williams, however. The WNBA's third-leading scorer dominated inside most of the night, scoring a game-high 23 points and grabbing seven rebounds despite aggravating a sore arch late in the first half.
"Natalie is a warrior. She played through a lot of pain," said Fred Williams, whose Starzz swept the two-game season series with Washington.
STING 75, LIBERTY 69: Dawn Staley scored six points in overtime and Rhonda Mapp had 18 points and 18 rebounds to lead Charlotte in New York.