- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2008

A week ago, the Washington Mystics were in disarray.

During a five-game losing streak, the Mystics shot poorly and turned the ball over regularly. Because of an injury and erratic play, coach Tree Rollins struggled to find a consistent lineup. And with a road trip on deck, it appeared more troubles were forthcoming.

But after grinding out two tight road wins - 64-57 at Chicago on June 13 and 67-63 at Houston on Wednesday - the Mystics’ list of problems seems to have shortened heading into Friday night’s home game against winless Atlanta.

“We’re starting to gel a little bit more,” Rollins said. “But the main thing is that we’re still playing hard. Each night another player has stepped up, and we keep getting better and better.”

The Mystics (4-7) have received a big lift from point guard Nikki Blue’s return to the starting lineup. While she missed five games with a sprained ankle, the position was in flux. Backups Amber Jacobs and Crystal Smith each started three games in Blue’s absence (she came off the bench in her first game back), and shooting guard Alana Beard spent time at point guard in those games as well, especially in crucial late situations.

While Beard was running the offense, the Mystics missed her in her most important role - as a scorer. She had 20 points just twice during the losing streak. Rollins said it was a disservice to the team using Beard at point guard because of the way she can score, but he had to out of necessity.

Now free of point guard responsibilities, Beard has been the scorer Washington needs her to be. She scored 22 points and 23 points, respectively, and has accounted for 34.4 percent of the Mystics’ offense in the last two wins. Though she was willing to handle the point guard duties when necessary, Beard feels more comfortable back at her usual position.

“At the one, I become very passive and take on that point guard role as far as being the setup guard,” Beard said.

Rollins also has settled on a frontcourt rotation. For much of the early part of the season, he struggled to find a consistent contributor off the bench to spell veteran starters Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Nakia Sanford.

Rollins used rookies Crystal Langhorne and Krystal Vaughn and second-year player Andrea Gardner each at least once as the first forward off the bench. Finally, Langhorne emerged with 13 points and 10 rebounds in 26 minutes June 11 against Sacramento, while Sanford spent much of the game on the bench with foul trouble.

With roster fluctuation minimized and a reliable rotation, Rollins said he believes the Mystics have their best basketball ahead of them.

“It’s going to be a continuing process to the end of the season,” Rollins said. “We just gotta make sure we keep growing.”

Though Blue’s return has helped stabilize the Mystics’ offense, it has not helped curb their turnover problem. Despite winning, Washington scored in the 60s its past two games in part because of 22 turnovers against Chicago and 19 against Houston. The Mystics’ coaches are so concerned with the issue that they are now counting turnovers in practice in an attempt to emphasize the problem to the players.

But despite that ongoing blemish, Washington feels much better about itself than it did a week ago.

“I remember talking to people [last week], and I was really stressed beyond belief,” Beard said. “To get wins feels so good. It picks the team’s morale up. The fact that we have wins under our belt gives us more confidence.”