Liberty 77, Mystics 68

A generous break in the WNBA schedule gave the Washington Mystics five days to prepare for last night's game against the New York Liberty. In this case, however, preparation was no replacement for health as the short-handed Mystics suffered a 77-68 loss in front of 11,601 at MCI Center and dropped to 1-3 on the season. All three losses have come at MCI Center, where the Mystics finished 11-6 last year.

The Mystics have played without second-year guard Alana Beard since she rolled an ankle during practice May 16 and things were made worse when forward DeLisha Milton-Jones suffered a knee injury during practice Tuesday. Beard and Milton-Jones, who arrived in the trade that sent Chamique Holdsclaw to Los Angeles, were supposed to be the key pieces to the roster and without them, Coach Richie Adubato spent last night scrapping to stay in the game against his former team.

The Liberty, which shot 36.8 percent in losing its first two games, shot 55.4 percent last night and made 8 of 14 three-pointers. New York was led by forward Vickie Johnson, who snapped out of a slump by hitting 9 of 12 shots, including all four three-point attempts, on her way to a game-high 23 points and 10 rebounds.

Forward Chasity Melvin led the Mytics with 16 points but fouled out while trying to defend a driving Johnson with 4 minutes 24 seconds left.

"If I was coaching Vickie Johnson again, I would be very happy with her performance," said Adubato, who coached the Liberty for five seasons. "It was incredible. . . . She's a veteran player and she was hot and she knew her team needed a win today."

The good news is that Beard is expected to be in uniform for the first time when the Mystics host the Minnesota Lynx tomorrow and star forward Katie Smith, who is back after suffering a knee injury last season. As her disappointed teammates showered and dressed following last night's game, Beard sat at her locker stall strapping on a pair of ankle braces and basketball shoes. Beard then hit the practice court for some shooting drills.

"We'll see how it feels," Beard said. "I want to get out there and help the team. We've been right there at the end of these games, we just haven't been able to finish them."

Things looked promising for the Mystics early as rookie point guard Temeka Johnson sparked a game-opening 10-4 run by finishing a pair of fast breaks with layups and by contributing three assists, including a spectacular behind-the-back pass to Charlotte Smith-Taylor. New York responded with a 12-4 run that included a three-pointer by Vickie Johnson and a smooth turnaround jump shot by Shameka Christon. The Liberty shot 60 percent in the first half and hit 4 of 7 three-pointers.

New York also made a concerted effort to rebound better than it had in losses to Detroit and Indiana. The Liberty held a 28-20 advantage in rebounds, a 36-26 advantage in points in the lanes and an 18-11 advantage in second-chance points last night.

"I knew for sure that they were going to make shots tonight," Melvin said. "But obviously we could have done a better job rebounding. We have to make a collective effort to bring more energy on the defensive end. I don't think it was there the whole time tonight."

Despite the disparity on the inside and New York's hot shooting, the Mystics trailed only 73-68 with 37 seconds remaining. Coco Miller gave the home fans hope when she made a steal at half court, but that hope quickly vanished when Smith-Taylor's pass to Murriel Page bounced off Page's hand.

The Mystics then allowed nine seconds to run off the clock before fouling Becky Hammon, who made two free throws.

"Losing is not easy," Adubato said. "At home it's even harder, but we have to persevere. We have to understand that it's early in the season and we just have to correct the mistakes we've made and push through them. Tonight we had the effort but we just have to execute a little better."

Mystics guard Coco Miller (8 points) reaches in as she tries to knock the ball away from Liberty guard Becky Hammon.