WNBA: Mystics Cast Defensive Spell Over Liberty
By Kathleen Radebaugh
WASHINGTON _ In the three-way race for the fourth and final playoff spot in the WNBA’s Eastern Conference race, the Washington Mystics might have found a useful weapon to contend with the New York Liberty and Chicago Sky.
After Saturday night’s games, Chicago and Washington were in a virtual tie with New York a half-game behind.
Washington took care of its own business, for the moment, on Friday night here at the Verizon Center by beating New York, 80-68. The Connecticut Sun moved closer to the second-place Indiana Fever Saturday night with an 84-59 win at the Mohegan Sun Arena to maintain distance from the other three playoff contenders.
“It is not totally in our hands,” said Tree Rollins, the Mystics’s interim coach after Friday’s game. “We need to do all we can to position ourselves to sneak in. My team played hard enough and played well enough to be in the playoffs. When we get down deep, we still find a way to come back. I am proud of them because they have shown what it means to be a professional basketball player.”
For the Mystics, Friday’s triumph was extremely successful not only in boasting the team’s moral and confidence but in proving to the entire Eastern Conference that their defense and determination should not be taken lightly.
“The first player I thought wasn’t playing hard, I made a sub right away,” said Rollins. “[Monique] Currie was not playing hard enough. She sat next to me and I explained to her that we needed her talent tonight and could not do this without her.”
Effective, Currie went on to score 12 points, post 4 rebounds, and totaled three assists for Washington.
In a win, a team always needs shots to fall and post players to rebound, but a team also needs to control the workings of the game. Rollins for weeks practiced with the Mystics a 2-3 zone defense to force shooters out of the paint and into sharp angle shots.
In the first two quarters, New York couldn’t exceeded 33 percent in shooting and only totaled six points in the paint. Liberty starting guard Loree Moore, compensated by making two three pointers, yet she even knew it wasn’t going to be enough for the win.
“There was no urgency from us [Liberty] tonight,” said Moore. “It is coming to the end, and we are fighting for something big, but they outplayed us. [Nakia] Sanford took over the paint inside. Anything they wanted, they were getting. We made our runs and got back into it before the second half, but after that they attacked us more. Now, everybody knows our strengths and our weaknesses.”
Sanford excelled at center for Washington, a blockade in the post, forcing shooters outside their comfort zone, finding many backdoors herself ending the night with 16 points. According to Rollins, Sanford silenced his worries that she would not be able to compete against other East Conference defenders.
“She zipped my lips right away,” said Rollins.
By the end of the first half, New York was only down by four, 33-29, due to Moore’s three’s and the team totaling more offensive and defensive rebounds. Starting guard Erin Thorn got off to a tremendous start at the beginning of the third quarter, posting 7 points within the first 90 seconds. Thorn had back-to-back three pointers, the second grabbing the first lead for New York, 37-35.
Washington does not have one consistent three point shooter. By the end of the first half, the home team did not have one three point basket, only six attempts. There was only one attempt made in the third quarter, which was by All-Star Alana Beard. This can be easily overlooked when Beard had five layups and two steals in the third quarter alone.
“Beard reminds me so much of a Michael-Jordan-type player,” said Rollins. “She has the ability to go out and get 40 [points] every night, but she also has the ability to see where she is going to be needed. She is an All-Star.”
If the Mystics, however, want to beat Chicago out of the berth, they will have to stop Jia Perkins who leads the WNBA in three point field goal percentages. Last Friday, Perkins had a career-high 39 points and 10 assists to lead the Sky to 92-84 double-overtime against the Sacramento Monarchs. Rollins may need to stray from his zone defense and play woman-to-woman to silence Perkins’ shooting.
New York’s torrid three-pointing shooting eventually cooled and the Liberty also fell victim to turnovers and fouls in the latter part of the third quarter and fourth quarter. By the end of the third, the Mystics regained their lead 55-47, with DeLisha Milton-Jones completing a jump shot, assisted by Nikki Teasley.
“Game ball went to Nikki Teasley tonight,” said Rollins. “On her knees she looked fresh and she looked like a rookie out there tonight.”
Teasley arrives two hours before practices and games to undergo routine exercises and rehabilitation to prepare her knees and feet for tip off. Teasley’s jump shot in the fourth quarter extended Washington’s lead to nine points, 66-57. With a little over a minute remaining, Teasley stole the ball from Liberty center Janel McCarville handed it off to Beard for her to clinch a three pointer, taking the potential win out of Liberty’s grasp, 76-62.
“We were not our best tonight,” said New York coach Pat Coyle. “Coming off back-to-back games with no preparation did not help, and they were sitting here and waiting for us.”
The Mystics will host Chicago at home Sunday to continue their quest for postseason action. New York will do likewise this week with a visit to the Houston Comets.