It was like old times tonight as the WNBA brought to town the Hall of Fame Enshrinement Game and showcased the best women's players in the country, including three members of the Washington Mystics.
The U.S. national team, led by Mystics Nikki McCray and Chamique Holdsclaw, cruised to a 99-73 victory over a squad of top WNBA players that included Mystic Rita Williams before 9,374 fans at Hartford Civic Center. The game was played in conjunction with the Basketball Hall of Fame inductions held on Friday in nearby Springfield, Mass.
Any suspense regarding the outcome was eliminated just five minutes after the opening tip, when the national team went on a 12-0 run to blow open a two-point game.
"With us being the USA national team, we've got to be ready for every game," said McCray, whose 16-point total included 11 in the early minutes. "We've got to take a lot of pride in how we play. We had great fan support, which was really good, and we wanted to come out and show this place what we were made of."
If any community has a right to harbor bitterness toward professional sports, it surely is this one. This city has seen them all come, and with varying degrees of speed, it has watched them all go.
From the NHL's Whalers, who left town after nearly 20 years, to the NFL's Patriots, who left before they ever arrived, the people of Hartford have had their emotions toyed with, their pockets picked and their hearts shredded.
To the legions of fans in a state that is wild about women's basketball, last year's folding of the American Basketball League, which took down with it this city's New England Blizzard, was the deepest cut of all.
The women's pro game was left solely in the hands of the rival WNBA, which operates exclusively in NBA cities, not in small markets such as Hartford. The Blizzard drew an average of 8,000 fans to its games, among the best in the league.
"There are no bad emotions, only good ones," said former Blizzard general manager Pam Batalis, who now runs a marketing firm specializing in women's sports. "I've tried to put those feelings behind me, and get excited about seeing the best women's basketball players in the world on this floor."
Among that group was Holdsclaw, the WNBA's rookie of the year and among the most popular players in the league, and Williams, one of four former Connecticut players on the WNBA team. Holdsclaw finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds and a game-high 5 assists.
McCray set the tone for the blowout by continually slicing through the middle to drop in shots from short range. Her team's lead swelled to 58-30 early in the second half, despite being without three projected starters.
The national team played without WNBA most valuable player Yolanda Griffith, whose grandmother died last week; two-time regular season and three-time playoff MVP Cynthia Cooper, granted a leave of absence by USA Basketball after an emotional season with the champion Houston Comets in which her mother and teammate Kim Perrot died; and Lisa Leslie, a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, who will have arthroscopic surgery next week after injuring her knee.
Natalie Williams had a game-high 20 points and 11 rebounds to lead the national team.