- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 19, 2007

Alana Beard calls the Connecticut Sun her team’s “unicorn,” an entity the Washington Mystics can see but never quite catch.

Appropriately enough, the Mystics will open their season against the Sun tonight at Verizon Center. And Washington will get an immediate test to see whether it is ready to rise to elite status. Last season, Connecticut finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference and swept the Mystics in two games in the first round of the playoffs.

“If we come out and win this first game, it will open some people’s eyes,” said Mystics forward DeLisha Milton-Jones, whose team has only three wins in 18 attempts against the Sun the last four seasons. “It will create a buzz.”

Washington faces a series of questions as it enters its 10th WNBA season after setting team record for wins with its 18-16 record last season.

The most immediate question is the health of Beard, who is questionable tonight with a sore left shoulder. She missed a good part of training camp but practiced some this week. Coach Richie Adubato said it will be a game-time decision.

If the shooting guard can’t play, veteran Coco Miller will start in her spot.

The Mystics hope this is the year they become a legitimate contender with WNBA champion Detroit and Connecticut for the conference title. Washington is an experienced group with all five starters back, including Beard, Milton-Jones and center Chasity Melvin.

“We are going to have to make up size,” said Adubato, whose tallest player is the 6-foot-3 Melvin. “No question. We are going to have to force turnovers and be aggressive on the defensive end. We are going to have to press some to try and force teams to run.”

Washington also has returning starters in point guard Nikki Teasley and small forward Crystal Robinson. Not surprisingly, the group feels it will have an advantage over teams that changed personnel. For instance, Connecticut traded last season’s starting center, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, to Los Angeles.

The Mystics’ only somewhat meaningful loss was reserve forward Latasha Byears. The continuity has players believing they will top last season’s win total.

“My personal goal for us is to get well over 20 wins,” said Milton-Jones, the 6-1 power forward who averaged 14.6 points and 4.9 rebounds last season. “Eighteen wins, that’s nice. I am not used to having 15, 18 wins in a [34]-game season. That is ridiculous. I think everyone should come in here with the mentality of, ‘That’s embarrassing.’ And we need to do something about it.”

Milton-Jones missed 11 games with a sprained medial collateral ligament last season, a setback that slowed the Mystics, who started with a 7-3 record before her injury.

Washington will have a few changes in its rotation from a year ago. Bernice Mosby, the sixth pick in the draft out of Baylor, will back up Melvin and Milton-Jones on the frontline and be the second post player off the bench behind Nakia Sanford.

In addition to Mosby, the Mystics have several big options, including 6-7 Gillian Goring, a raw rookie out of N.C. State. The backcourt also figures to be stronger. Point guard Nikki Blue enters her in second season, and sharpshooter Laurie Koehn is developing into an all-around player.

“We have familiarity,” said Beard, who averaged 19.2 points a game last season. “We have strength in numbers. We have better depth.”

The “familiarity” in Adubato’s intricate system should also help. The coach believes the next step is to finish higher than they did last season (fourth place) and earn homecourt advantage in a playoff series.

“Even though we didn’t make major additions, we are playing together and have a better understanding of what we want to do,” he said. “We have to understand that we have to start right from the beginning if we want to get a better seed and finish higher in the standings.”

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