The crowd at MCI Center sang "Happy Birthday" to Washington Mystics forward Chamique Holdsclaw, who turns 22 today, but her team delivered the best present of all. In a game marked by energetic play, the Mystics cruised to their fourth straight victory yesterday, an 80-45 win over the Cleveland Rockers before 15,512 fans.
After the Mystics' victory, the second in as many days over the Rockers, MCI Center had a carnival-like atmosphere, with players dancing and Nikki McCray and Holdsclaw taking turns at the microphone to address the crowd. Even General Manager Wes Unseld joined the celebration by dancing in the locker room.
"A month ago, we probably would have given this game away," said McCray, who had a game-high 20 points. "But you won't see us get blown away for the rest of the year from this day forth."
The Mystics (10-17) now find themselves just two games out of the playoffs with five games remaining. The top three teams in each conference qualify for the postseason; Detroit (11-14) currently holds the final spot in the Eastern Conference.
"I'm not going to sit here and say that we're going to make the playoffs," said Holdsclaw, who scored 18 points. "But we're going to keep fighting, and we're going to do our best trying."
The Mystics set team records in margin of victory (35 points) and most field goals made (32) and established season highs in assists (23), three-pointers made (5) and steals (12). Every Mystic who played scored, and Washington shot 51.6 percent as a team.
The Rockers (6-21) were held to one three-pointer--another Mystics season high--and did not score a point on fast breaks. The Mystics allowed just 14 field goals and limited the Rockers to 28.6 shooting. Both of those numbers also were Mystics season highs.
"Best defense we've played all year," Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch said.
The victory also gave the Mystics a measure of revenge. The Rockers set a WNBA record for shooting percentage (63.2 percent) in an 85-68 victory over the Mystics at MCI Center July 21. The Mystics defeated the Rockers, 63-62, in Cleveland Saturday night, then boarded a bus back to Washington that arrived at about 1 a.m., instead of returning on an early morning flight.
The extra rest showed.
The Mystics took a 35-22 lead with 20 seconds left in the first half after Holdsclaw cut to the basket, leaped and twisted to catch a pass from McCray. She caught the ball in the air, and in one motion, turned and made the 10-foot basket. Darsch turned to her assistant coaches and smiled--a rarity during a game--in awe of Holdsclaw's shot.
The Mystics held a 37-23 halftime lead but were not satisfied. Washington had lost double-digit leads at home all season, but coming off a winning streak, the Mystics made sure it would not happen again.
"We had won the tight games," said center Murriel Page, who had nine points and seven rebounds). "This time, we wanted to go out and win by 20."
After three minutes of indifferent play to start the second half, the Mystics buried Cleveland. Washington made 10 of 12 shots, including two three-pointers by McCray, to build the lead to 67-33.
Along the way, the Mystics' defense was everywhere. In a 14-minute stretch to open the second half, Cleveland made three field goals and recorded seven turnovers. No Cleveland starter made more than three field goals. Rockers forward Eva Nemcova, who scored 19 points in the win over Washington in July, scored four points and had two shots blocked by Holdsclaw.
The Mystics were passing the ball with a precision that has been missing all season. Every Mystics player but one had at least one assist.
"It seems like everything is wide open right now," Holdsclaw said. "The court seems bigger. There's more space."
LIBERTY 74, COMETS 71: Sophia Witherspoon scored 22 points as New York held off two-time defending champion Houston before a sellout crowd of 19,563 at Madison Square Garden.
Witherspoon scored 13 second-half points for the Liberty (14-11), which snapped the Comets' seven-game winning streak.
Trailing 72-71 with 17 seconds left, Cynthia Cooper could not convert as Sue Wicks and Teresa Weatherspoon double-teamed her and stole the ball.
Sonja Henning was forced to foul Crystal Robinson, who hit two free throws for the final margin. Cooper's desperation three-pointer at the buzzer fell short.