- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

NEW YORK The Washington Mystics can thank the charity stripe for ending an ugly seven-game slide. It gets even better: The Mystics clinched the franchise's second-ever playoff berth with the win.

It's a good thing the Mystics can shoot free throws and Chamique Holdsclaw's ankles didn't give out. The team that was written off just a week ago is now playoff bound.

The Mystics shot a perfect 21-for-21 from the free throw line and Holdsclaw recorded her 12th double-double of the season with 22 points and 15 rebounds as the Mystics defeated the New York Liberty 65-54 before 17,594 last night at Madison Square Garden.

The Mystics (16-13) play the Liberty (17-12) again tonight at MCI Center in yet another important game. If the Mystics beat New York tonight, they will be tied for first place with the Liberty and own the tiebreaker if the two teams finish with identical records.

"Thank goodness," Holdsclaw said after learning the Mystics clinched a playoff berth. "For once in my WNBA career, we have games left and are actually in the playoffs now and we don't have to worry what other teams do. This is where we wanted to be at the beginning of the season Eastern Conference champions."

The Mystics clinched a playoff spot courtesy of the Sacramento Monarchs' 82-76 defeat of the Orlando Miracle and with their victory over the Liberty based on the league's tie-breaking process.

Said Mystics forward Murriel Page, who is the only Mystic remaining from the inaugural 1998 team that went 3-27: "It feels good to know we're in, but we're not going to just settle for knowing that we are in. We started the season wanting to finish No.1 in the Eastern Conference and that is still our goal."

Before the game, Liberty coach Richie Adubato called last night "the biggest game of the year" for his team. With the Eastern Conference crown on the line, Adubato's Liberty needed no extra motivation but played like they needed a shot doctor. For the game, the Liberty shot just 37.3 percent from the floor and turned the ball over 14 times.

Adubato can smile after that dismal shooting performance because the Liberty also clinched a playoff berth last night.

"That is great news. I'm glad we can find something good from tonight," Adubato said. "Everybody knows, once you get to the playoffs, everybody has a clean slate. We have not changed what we're playing for, we're going out there to try to win the Eastern Conference."

The Mystics seemingly wanted to set the tone for this game by throwing the ball away. In the first 3:42, the Mystics shot once a driving Holdsclaw layup that rolled off the rim and turned the ball over five times.

Luckily for the Mystics, a Vicky Bullett 3-pointer from the top of the key put an end to their ball-handling follies and gave them an early 3-2 lead with 16:18 left in the first half. After their sloppy first few minutes, the Mystics really tightened up and play much better the rest of the way.

"We did something good that we haven't been doing this last seven games we settled in and didn't get freaked out," Holdsclaw said of the poor start. "During the losing streak, we just lost our poise."

The Mystics played well defensively throughout. The Mystics couldn't stop Liberty center Tari Phillips, but effectively shut down the rest of her teammates. Take away Phillips' six of eight shooting, and the Mystics forced the rest of the Liberty to make a combined four of 20 shots. Even with Phillips' good shooting, the Liberty shot just 35.7 percent from the floor (10 of 28) in the first half.

"I feel like our team is back, we've finally played the way we can play," said Mystics coach Marianne Stanley, a leading candidate for WNBA coach of the year. "It took them [Liberty] a long time to get anything going [from the outside]. Credit our defense. Our defensive intensity and energy was fabulous."

The Mystics had no answer for Phillips. The Liberty's 6-foot-1 bruiser scored at will on the Mystics in the first half. Phillips, who came into this game as the Liberty's leading scorer at 14.1 points a game, had her mid-range game working to perfection.

Phillips, who finished with a game-high 14 points in the first half, simply pulled up for jumpers on Bullett and then later on Page. Phillips finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds, but it wasn't enough.

Holdsclaw, who is from nearby Queens, was huge for the Mystics. Her 11 first-half points and eight rebounds led the Mystics to a 33-24 halftime advantage.

The Mystics broke open the first half with a 9-1 run in the final two minutes. Holdsclaw started the Mystics' run when she buried a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give the Mystics a 27-23 lead and scored five of the Mystics' nine points during the key run.

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