Monday, May 21, 2001


There is a breath of fresh air on Fun Street.

Australian coach Tom Maher has brought the Washington Mystics some much-needed “Thunder from Down Under,” and his confidence is contagious.

Immediately after Saturday’s practice, Chamique Holdsclaw guaranteed that the Mystics would score between 60 and 65 points in their exhibition opener.

Holdsclaw was true to her word: The Mystics scored 65.

Holdsclaw led all scorers with 19 as the Mystics defeated the Cleveland Rockers 65-55 yesterday before 8,006 in the first of two exhibitions at MCI Center.

The game was the first dress rehearsal for Maher’s uptempo system. In three days, Maher will get his last chance to fine-tune his squad with an exhibition against the New York Liberty, defending WNBA Eastern Conference champions, at Hartford (Conn.) Civic Center.

Afterward, Maher was concerned that his offense wasn’t perfect and that the Mystics were outrebounded 36-29 and finished with just two offensive rebounds. But these shortcomings should be corrected as the players better understand his offense and healthy post players become available.

Unavailable players include 6-foot-4 center Michelle Campbell (knee), 6-3 center Tausha Mills (foot) and 6-5 center Jenny Whittle (Europe).

For the most part, though, it wasn’t a bad debut for Maher, whose team opens the regular season May 31 in Cleveland.

“It’s like trial and error we’re testing out new things,” said Holdsclaw, who made six of 14 shots. “This was the first game. We’ve got to play [the Rockers] in the first game, and we don’t want to show them everything.”

There were plenty of positives for the Mystics. Maher’s aggressive, hawking defense took the Rockers completely out of their halfcourt offense. Cleveland shot just 31 percent from the floor and rushed many shots.

Annie Burgess, whom the Mystics acquired in a pre-draft trade with the Minnesota Lynx for a second-round pick (28th overall) in last month’s WNBA Draft, relentlessly pressed the ball, and made Rockers point guards Helen Darling and Tricia Bader Binford seem irrelevant as they totaled only two points on 0-for-9 shooting.

“It’s evident that they’ve been working hard and the coach has been on them about getting the lose balls and picking up on defense,” said Rockers shooting guard Merlakia Jones, a four-year WNBA player. “This was a preseason game, so it was a good measuring stick for them.”

The Mystics led 35-16 in the first half 49-29 in the second, but Maher’s use of 13 players prevented Washington from blowing the Rockers out of Chinatown.

“We don’t have a good appreciation of being persistent,” Maher said of his team’s defensive effort. “We play good ‘D’ and then we don’t. It’s like, ‘How does that work?’ We take it easy for awhile. We lost momentum a couple of times just because we’re not very skillful yet.”

A slimmed-down Tonya Washington gave the Mystics excellent minutes off the bench. Washington, who lost 16 pounds in the offseason, led all bench scorers with nine points on 4-for-5 shooting in 14 minutes.

Nikki McCray, the Mystics’ starting offguard, finished with 15 points on 4-for-6 shooting. Power forward Murriel Page pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds and added seven points.

“It’s a good thing that we won by 10, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Burgess said.

After the game, the Mystics waived swing player Beth Cunningham, a former Notre Dame star who was signed as a free agent last season. She appeared in 21 games and averaged 2.8 points.

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