- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

For the WNBA team once referred to as the "Mistakes" after its first two seasons, advancing to their first conference final this season both vindicated and displayed the promise of the Washington Mystics.
They showed promise in the 10-2 start that put them atop the Eastern Conference standings, in the resiliency to rebound from a late-season losing skid and in earning their first playoff series victory before falling one win shy of the WNBA Finals.
Promise shined through in a coach who implemented an exciting, up-tempo brand of basketball, in a pair of rookies Stacey Dales-Schuman and Asjha Jones who should become cornerstones of the team for years to come and in a superstar, Chamique Holdsclaw, who essentially was the league's MVP when healthy.
That promise was not enough to carry the team past the New York Liberty in the Eastern Conference finals, but it was enough to keep the players hungry and believing they can go further next season.
"We have to take a lesson from this and look forward to the future," Holdsclaw said. "We can easily be in this position. Now we know what it takes."
Given the way the Mystics took the Eastern Conference by storm for the first two-thirds of the season, winning the East next season appears a real possibility.
The Mystics were 15-6 and in first place by 2 games July 18 before losing nine of their final 11 to slip to third place in the conference. The team went 5-4 while Holdsclaw recovered from a sprained ankle but finished just 2-7 after she returned.
The Mystics stopped the slide in time to qualify for the playoffs and sweep the Charlotte Sting in the first round; it appeared the confidence they had early in the season returned. But they had lost their grip on the conference's top seed for the playoffs, something that likely made the difference because they lost two games at New York.
Looking forward to next season, WNBA coach of the year Marianne Stanley the first coach to return after a full season in the team's history will have a young, solid core to work with in Holdsclaw, Dales-Schuman, Jones, Coco Miller, Annie Burgess and Murriel Page.
Their young legs helped them play the fast-paced style Stanley wanted, but there were downsides. Dales-Schuman struggled with fatigue in her legs at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs, and Miller, voted the WNBA's most improved player, struggled with her shooting consistency. Some maturation in offseason should go a long way toward making Dales-Schuman, Jones and Miller more consistent performers.
"Maybe next year Stacey won't lose her legs. Maybe next year Asjha will be better under pressure," Holdsclaw said. "There are lessons to be learned. We can come back and be a great team."
Stanley and player personnel consultant Pat Summitt will look at a number ways to improve the team. Given the areas the Mystics were beaten in the series against the Liberty, likely additions could come at forward in the form of backups to Dales-Schuman and Holdsclaw. The Mystics have the No.10 pick overall in April's draft.
Veteran forward Vicky Bullett, 34, considered not returning to the team after the 2000 and 2001 seasons but came back both times; she is again weighing her options. Before the New York series, Bullett, who plays in an Italian pro league in the offseason, said "it's hard to say" whether she would play next season.
Stanley said her evaluation of prospective additions will start immediately.
"It's like recruiting on the college level it never ends, it's ongoing," she said. Stanley declined Sunday to specify which areas of the team she would consider improving, however.
Regardless, with their breakthrough this season the Mystics entrenched themselves as one of the favorites in the eight-team Eastern Conference at least for next season, if not several seasons to come. They were just a few points away from defeating an experienced New York team, one that has dominated the conference through the first six seasons of the league but one the Mystics proved vulnerable.
"We've learned a lot about the physical demands of playoff basketball, how much heart and mental toughness and physical toughness is required to advance through the playoffs," Stanley said. "We've learned that not from someone else telling us what it is like, that you have to be prepared or imagining what it's like. Now we've got our own tangible experience to build on.
"We will be better next year, we will be in the playoffs again and we want to be champions."

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