- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 1, 2002

Never have the Washington Mystics possessed a winning mentality. Now it appears they have.

The Mystics have everything in place for what could be a memorable basketball summer in the District, or at least the first winning season in franchise history. From the front office to the 11th player on the active roster, the Mystics have considerable talent.

The winning mentality started when owner Abe Pollin hired Marianne Stanley as coach and University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt as a consultant. Together Summitt and Stanley bring a wealth of experience, including nine NCAA titles.

Then the Mystics, who open their season tonight, drafted Oklahoma guard Stacey Dales-Schuman (third overall) and Connecticut forward Asjha Jones (fourth overall), who faced each other in the NCAA championship game this spring. Jones hasn't lost a game in a year.

"I know we say it every year, but this year there is a big difference," said forward Murriel Page, the last original Mystic from the 3-27 squad of 1997. "This is the best this team has looked in my five years being here."

The early returns are promising. The Mystics went 2-0 in the preseason, and for a team that has never enjoyed a winning season, that's a good sign.

"The atmosphere is positive," said center Vicky Bullett. "If the team continues to stay positive, work hard and complement each other, we should go far."

Another reason the Mystics could be contenders was the Nikki McCray trade. Last Dec.5, the Mystics traded the poorly shooting McCray to the Indiana Fever for the fourth pick in April's WNBA Draft and chose Jones.

From the start of McCray's four seasons in Washington, she was miscast as a superstar. A career 29.9 percent 3-point shooter, she would singlehandedly shoot the Mystics out of games and play matador defense.

In the Mystics' first exhibition game this season Jones' first game with Washington the 6-foot-2 forward made her first six shots en route to 14 points, five rebounds and three blocks against the New York Liberty. In the Fever's final preseason game, McCray played 36 minutes, shot 2-for-8 and committed eight turnovers.

With McCray gone, the Mystics can put good shooters at the off-guard position. Second-year player Coco Miller, who was the Mystics' first-round selection (ninth overall) in the 2001 draft, will get a chance to prove her worth. Tonya Washington, perhaps the Mystics' best outside shooter, will platoon with Miller. Washington shot 34.5 percent from behind the 3-point arc last season.

The Mystics' weaknesses are a lack of size and experience. That's where Dales-Schuman and Jones come in. Both are skilled 6-footers from big-time programs. They know all about the Mystics' dark past and are determined to do something about it.

Dales-Schuman, a three-time first-team all-American, and Jones provide a solid supporting cast for star Chamique Holdsclaw, a three-time WNBA All-Star. Until this season, Holdsclaw hasn't enjoyed the luxury of having much scoring help.

"Playing well together is the key and that's what is going to make us good, because we do that well in practice," said Dales-Schuman. "I'm very pleased with the total package."

When the Mystics open their fifth season tonight against the Orlando Miracle (1-0) at MCI Center, their loyal fans will finally see a transition team. Every coach who has rolled through Washington has employed an uptempo game plan, but the Mystics never have been able to run effectively. With Stanley in charge, they're getting the message.

At every practice, Stanley has the Mystics work on their running game grabbing defensive rebounds, filling the lanes and streaking down court. So far in practice and in exhibitions, the Mystics are running successfully. If it holds up, they could be entertaining to watch.

"From day one, [transition is] something that I'm preaching and pushing. It is consistently being pushed as important as anything," Stanley said. "There is nothing wrong with transition itself we do that well, we're athletic and we have people that can get up and down the floor so there has got to be a reason beyond the physical part of it why we don't convert."

It won't take long to figure out where the Mystics stand, especially if they make their layups. Fifteen of their 32 games are in June.

"We not big at all we're going to have to kill people with our quickness," Holdsclaw said.

Said Jones, who played with her share of blue-chip high school All-Americans at UConn, "We're going to be really good. Everybody who was here last year has gotten a lot better in the offseason. Now we have a really good coach that has put us in good situations."

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