Blood-stained uniforms, back screens that knock opponents to the floor and even the occasional shoving match with opponents have been the backdrop for the Washington Mystics' four-game winning streak and surprising rise into playoff contention.
"As a team, we're definitely playing tougher, more aggressively," Mystics reserve guard Coco Miller said. "When we set picks, we make sure that the other players can't get through them."
The Mystics (16-16) have been downright defiant during their winning streak. It has served them well, as they have risen from last place in the WNBA's Eastern Conference. Now they can clinch a playoff spot with victories over Phoenix tonight and New York on Sunday.
"Our goal now is to win for a good playoff [seeding]," center Nakia Sanford said.
Such confidence comes from a new, somewhat confrontational attitude toward opponents. An example was Sunday, when Houston's Tina Thompson, an all-star and Olympian, sent Mystics guard Stacey Dales-Schuman to the floor in the second half of Washington's 75-63 victory. The 6-foot, 155-pound Dales-Schuman leapt up and got right in the face of the 6-2, 178-pound Thompson.
The two were separated by teammates and no other incidents followed. But a message was sent: The Mystics will not go quietly.
"Basketball is a physical game," said Dales-Schuman about the incident, which cost Thompson a $500 league-imposed fine.
During their winning streak, the Mystics have averaged 74.2 points while holding opponents to 64.5. The Mystics' front line of Chasity Melvin, Sanford and Murriel Page are out-rebounding larger opponents, as it did during Wednesday night's victory over San Antonio, a team anchored by the 7-2 Margo Dydek.
The Mystics finished the night with 36 rebounds to the Silver Stars' 26.
Tonight's opponent, the Phoenix Mercury, is without overpowering front-court players, but shooters Diana Taurasi, Anna DeForge and former Mystic Nikki McCray will test the mettle of Washington's guards.
Taurasi, the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft after leading the University of Connecticut to three consecutive national championships, is averaging 16.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists for the Mercury (16-16).
DeForge is shooting 38 percent from beyond the three-point line while McCray has made good on a career-best 40 percent. Phoenix is vying for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
"We're going to put Alana [Beard, a guard-forward] on their power forwards and center sometimes," Mystics Coach Michael Adams said. "We have the kind of players that can do that. We're going to make them do things they are unused to doing, uncomfortable doing."
Liberty Tops Fever
Becky Hammon scored a season-high 28 points and Elena Baranova added 23 -- seven in overtime -- to lead host New York to a 77-71 win over Indiana.
Hammon made 4 of 6 three-pointers to help the Liberty pull into a tie with Charlotte and Washington for second place in the Eastern Conference.
* MONARCHS 71, COMETS 62: Tangela Smith had 17 points and six rebounds for visiting Sacramento, which eliminated Houston from playoff contention.