In the Eastern Conference's cellar for much of the season, the Washington Mystics could lock up a trip to the conference championship with a victory over the Connecticut Sun tonight in their first-round WNBA playoff series.
On Saturday, the Mystics defeated the Sun, 67-59, in Game 1 of the three-game series. Standing between Washington and its second trip to the conference finals is a Connecticut roster loaded with skilled three-point shooters, bulky post players and guards who log plenty of assists.
Connecticut finished the regular season 18-16, went 5-2 since the month-long Olympic break ended (the Mystics went 5-3) and is 10-7 at home. To knock out the Sun, the Mystics must win one of the next two games, but the Mystics' record in Connecticut is 2-8.
Washington also faces barbs from Sun Coach Mike Thibault, who suggested Washington got a break from referees in Saturday's match.
In a news conference following his team's loss on Saturday, Thibault alleged that Mystics guard Alana Beard and forward Chasity Melvin employed unfair tactics.
"I'd like to see [Beard] and Melvin get called for pushing off on people," said Thibault, in his second year in Connecticut. "Melvin probably does it on every possession. She looks like she came from football where you get to stiff-arm."
Told of Thibault's comments, Melvin smiled and noted that she didn't want to be baited into saying something that could fire up her opponents.
"Everything is physical out there," said Melvin, who finished with a game high 17 points and 11 rebounds. Referring to the Sun's Le'Coe Willingham, Melvin said: "What do we do when Willingham camps out for more than three seconds? It's the playoffs. . . . I'm not going to change my game."
In Game 2, the Sun is likely to rely on forward Nykesha Sales, despite her poor showing Saturday.
Sales, the team's scoring leader with 15.2 points per game, was held to four points and two assists against the Mystics. Thibault likely will try to get open looks at the basket for guards Katie Douglas and Lindsay Whalen. Douglas leads the Sun with 53 three-pointers this season but hit only 1 of 5 on Saturday.
Whalen scored 16 points and made both her shots from beyond the three-point line.
Should the Sun's perimeter game misfire, the Sun can go back to post players Taj McWilliams-Franklin and reserve Asjha Jones, who finished Game 1 with a combined 27 points and 13 rebounds.
Look for the Mystics to counter with Aiysha Smith, the second-year player and former first-round draft choice who scored 10 points, including a three-pointer to put Washington up by 11 with just over four minutes to play.
"If the team needs scoring I try to score," said Smith, who averaged four points and 2.4 rebounds during the regular season. "If the team needs defense or rebounding, I try to give them that."
In her first WNBA playoff game, the 6-foot-2 Smith appeared poised in her 19 minutes, going 4 for 4 from the field. According to Melvin, Smith is a rare post player with long shooting range.
"That's something I haven't had before . . . a post player that could shoot the three-pointer or from the high post," said Melvin, a former member of the WNBA's now-defunct Cleveland Rockers.
"That definitely took some pressure off of me. Usually when they doubled-teamed me in Cleveland, we didn't have the shooters who could come up to the top of the key. With [Smith] I know she's going to put it down."