Chamique Holdsclaw's departure was supposed to leave the Washington Mystics with a shortfall on offense as they pressed their case to make the WNBA playoffs.
Yesterday, however, Washington squeezed enough points out of role players and turned to Holdsclaw's heir apparent as star, rookie Alana Beard, who scored 17 of her 21 points in the second half to lead Washington to a 75-63 victory over the Houston Comets before an announced crowd of 11,761 at MCI Center.
At 15-16, the Mystics are keeping their heads above water in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They have scratched out a three-game winning streak at home and now embark on a final road tour to San Antonio, Phoenix and New York brimming with confidence, even though the club is 4-10 away from MCI Center this season.
"We just want to end the season on a positive note," said center Chasity Melvin, who scored her 2,000th career point. "Whether we make the playoffs or not, we've got to feel good about ourselves going into next season. If we work hard and keep playing like this, we'll know that next season will be our season."
Washington moved into fifth place in the East and trails Charlotte, which took over first after defeating Minnesota on Saturday night, by one game.
Facing two of the game's best players in Houston's Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson, the Mystics started the game down in the tally of superstars, 2-0.
Holdsclaw, one of the WNBA's most prolific scorers over the past five years who also leads Washington in rebounding, said last week that she would sit out the rest of the season because of an undisclosed illness. Yesterday's game was the eighth that Holdsclaw has missed. The Mystics are 5-3 without her.
Beard's performance in the second half of the season has buoyed the Mystics in Holdsclaw's absence and is the kind of play that made heroes of Swoopes, Holdsclaw and Thompson. In fact, Thompson was honored at halftime for her efforts in helping the U.S. women's Olympic basketball team win gold at the Athens Games this summer. (Swoopes also played on the Olympic team, but stayed in the locker room during the salute because of an injury she suffered in the first half.)
Beard outplayed Thompson, who finished with 17 points and five rebounds.
Not only did Beard outscore Thompson, she posted six rebounds, four steals and, for good measure, blocked one of Thompson's shots.
"She's not playing like a rookie anymore," Mystics Coach Michael Adams said.
"My teammates said I wasn't a rookie anymore on the court, but I still have to put the balls away," Beard joked after the game, referring to one of the chores that rookies are required to fulfill.
"I feel very comfortable playing in the WNBA and with the position I'm in," said Beard, Washington's first-round pick (No. 2 overall) in April's draft. "Tonight, my teammates were moving without the ball, which created lanes and that allowed us to make plays."
Beard got plenty of help, especially after picking up her third foul with 11 minutes 37 seconds to go before halftime. Tamicha Jackson replaced her and quickly began picking up the team with her passing and shooting. The 5-foot-6 Jackson scored seven points and fired up her teammates by blocking a shot.
The Mystics began the game slowly. Thompson, at 6-2, 178 pounds, is too big for guards to defend in the post and too quick for most front-line players to stay with, making her one of the most dangerous scorers in the league. She created matchup problems for the Mystics and finished the half with 11 points and three rebounds.
But after Swoopes suffered a bruised eye while fighting for control for a loose ball with Melvin, the Mystics could afford to guard Thompson with multiple players.
Washington took a 32-31 lead at halftime.
The Mystics opened the second half with a 15-7 run, with nine of the points scored by Beard. She drove for layups, worked inside and hit a three-pointer to put the Mystics up 50-40 with 15:34 remaining.
Houston responded on defense, focusing on stopping Beard. This left other Mystics open. Melvin, Jackson, Coco Miller and Stacey Dales-Schuman made the Comets pay by hitting shots.
"As a team we all have to be ready to perform in times like these," Jackson said, "no matter when you're called."
* SUN 71, STORM 64: Katie Douglas scored 16 of her 21 points in the second half, and host Connecticut spoiled the return of former University of Connecticut star Sue Bird, who plays for Seattle.
* SPARKS 65, MONARCHS 52: Lisa Leslie scored 23 points, and Los Angeles clinched first place in the Western Conference. The Sparks have won nine of their past 10. Yolanda Griffith had 17 points and seven rebounds for Sacramento.
* LIBERTY 64, SILVER STARS 62: Crystal Robinson scored 16 points, and Becky Hammon had 15 to rally host New York past last-place San Antonio and snap a three-game losing streak.