- The Washington Times - Friday, August 23, 2002

Murriel Page began the evening sprawled on the court after a chest bump with Chamique Holdsclaw went wrong in pregame introductions. She spent the rest of the night dishing out lumps to the New York Liberty.

Page's 17 points led an outstanding effort by the Washington Mystics' bench and four late points from Holdsclaw sealed the Mystics' 79-74 victory in Game 1 of the WNBA Eastern Conference finals before a raucous 17,218 at MCI Center.

The teams head to New York, where they will play Game 2 tomorrow night. Game 3, if necessary, would be Sunday, also in New York.

With the Mystics leading 75-72, Holdsclaw's baseline runner took a fortunate bounce up and through the hoop with 35 seconds to go, and her two free throws, the last of her 20 points, shortly thereafter sealed the victory. But the Mystics needed everything they got from reserves Page, Asjha Jones and Tonya Washington who combined to outscore New York's bench 30-13 to position themselves for the victory.

"Our bench was fabulous," Mystics coach Marianne Stanley said. "Murriel Page was great, Tonya had some clutch baskets and rebounds and Asjha had ice water in her veins."

Leading up to the series, the Mystics preached their need to give Holdsclaw a strong supporting cast both in points and in protecting their star to keep the Liberty from taking her out of the game as they did Indiana's Tamika Catchings in the conference semifinals. They did just that in providing a balanced attack.

"They're going to try and control her, and it's our job as bench players to come in and have an impact," Jones said. "You need to have a strong bench in order to go far."

The Mystics also won by pressuring the veteran-laden Liberty into mistakes after falling behind 22-11 early on. Stanley applied a full-court press that helped force seven New York turnovers in eight possessions, allowing the Mystics to climb back into the game with a 15-0 run to lead 26-22 with 6:47 left in the first half. New York wasn't finished though, and two 3-pointers in the final nine seconds of the half gave the Liberty a 37-35 lead at halftime.

The Liberty came out blazing after halftime, making 12 of their first 16 field-goal attempts, to build a lead that reached as many as eight with 8:30 to go. Coco Miller, who finished just 2-for-10 from the field, hit a big 3-pointer to keep the Mystics close at 62-57.

The Mystics did well to keep pace with a veteran team they had lost to in seven of their last eight meetings and had been the class of the Eastern Conference for most of the WNBA's six seasons. When the Liberty, who were led by Tari Phillips' 21 points, made a big first-half run, it appeared the game would result as most of the previous ones had.

"You have to expect [the runs] they're going to come, they're part of the game," said Stacey Dales-Schuman. "It's how you deal with them and how you get through them that's the challenge."

The Mystics were up to the challenge. Behind Jones, who hit three jumpers early in the second half, and Page, the Mystics stayed nearly step for step with New York. Page scored 10 points in a 3:41 span of the second, and her bucket in the post with 6:16 left closed the Mystics to 64-63.

A 3-pointer by New York's Becky Hammon tied it at 67, but Chamique Holdsclaw drove for a layup and found a wide-open Dales-Schuman for another and a 71-67 lead with 3:15 left.

Another 3-pointer, by Crystal Robinson (20 points), brought the Liberty to within 75-72, but Holdsclaw's runner sealed it. Only then could she rejoice with Page, who was expecting Holdsclaw to fake a chest-bump before Holdsclaw delivered one with full force.

"I think it loosened everyone up," Page said. "We knew coming in it was going to be a battle. I told myself I was going to do whatever I could do to help my team win tonight."

Now the Mystics head to New York today brimming with confidence and in the same position they were in the conference semifinal round, when they won Game 1 at home before winning at Charlotte in Game 2. This time, it's for the chance to advance to the WNBA finals.

"I'm so proud of the way we responded and handled the situation not losing composure or getting distracted," Stanley said. "It was a physical game, but we stayed together."

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