- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

After sinking a frantic 10-foot runner, beating the first-half buzzer and giving the Orlando Miracle an eight-point halftime lead over the Washington Mystics, Orlando guard Shannon Johnson pumped her fist and blew a mocking kiss to the MCI Center crowd.

As for the Mystics, they just kissed away sole possession of first place.

Doomed by awful starts to both halves, Washington fell to Orlando 70-55 last night in front of 15,194 fans who haven't seen a home win in four games.

The Mystics' slide, which has seen them drop four straight and five of their last six, is officially teetering on the verge of a freefall. With last night's defeat, the Mystics let the idle New York Liberty creep into a tie for first place.

"This is not a panic situation," said Washington coach Marianne Stanley, who kept the locker room door closed longer than usual after the game. "Nobody in our locker room is panicked. It's like you're lost and can't find your way when the answers are right inside of you."

Orlando's Nykesha Sales, whose 25 points were a game-high, and Johnson, who added 24, victimized a Mystics squad that scored just four points in the game's first 8:40 and shot a wretched 23-for-73 overall (31.5 percent).

"A lot of what we've done has been well scouted," Stanley said. "Rightfully so; we're 25 games in. We've got to make some changes."

Johnson's furious buzzer-beating drive and the euphoria she displayed after finishing it was the act of a team desperate to hold onto its playoff spot. The Miracle (12-13) entered last night in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, just a half-game in front of fifth-place Miami for the fourth and final postseason berth.

In fact, both teams needed a win to preserve their hold on their respective spots in the standings. But only Orlando seemed to show it. With 2:05 left in the game, Sales and Johnson had outscored the Mystics by themselves 47-46.

"We can't let teams like Orlando [beat us]," said Washington forward Chamique Holdsclaw, who was the only Mystic in double figures with 18 points. "They don't even know if they're going to playoffs, but they came in and had a lot of heart tonight. If they can go out and do that hey, we're protecting something."

The Mystics (15-10) scored just once in the first 5:21 of the second half to fall behind by 13. Just as they had done in the first period, the Mystics made amends for their poor start from the field with a 9-0 run. Holdsclaw's layup with 11:29 remaining capped the spurt, which was aided by the Mystics' defensive switch from a man-to-man to a zone.

But Orlando answered with a 15-5 run, fueled by reserve Adrienne Johnson's six straight points for the Miracle. Her jumper at 5:44 pushed the lead back to nine and compensated for an otherwise unbalanced scoring effort by the Miracle. Besides Sales and Johnson, the rest of the Miracle shot 1-for-12 in the first half.

Except for Holdsclaw, the Mystics were no better, shooting 15-for-45. Starters Stacey Dales-Schuman and Coco Miller continued their recent shooting slump, combining to hit just three of 17 shots, including just one of eight from the 3-point arc.

"We're worrying too much about shooting," Stanley said. "I started out with a team that didn't care who took shots or who made them. We need an attitude adjustment."

In the first half, Johnson and Sales picked up right where the Seattle Storm's Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson left off in the Mystics' 81-70 loss on Saturday. Bird and Jackson combined for all but three of the Storm's final 25 points in that game. Johnson and Sales were every bit the same two-woman wrecking crew, accounting for all of the Miracle's scoring in a 21-4 Orlando run to open the game.

Washington had zero points in transition in the first half and generated almost as little scoring in its halfcourt set. Finally, after committing seven turnovers in the game's first eight minutes, the Mystics staged a run. The 9-0 spurt wasn't the prettiest display, but when Holdsclaw banked home an awkward one-handed leaner, it brought Washington within 21-13.

The Mystics, who were helped all night by Orlando's poor defensive rebounding, came as close as four points before the break. But what the Miracle gave away on the boards, they made up for by forcing turnovers. Washington committed 12 in the first half, which Orlando converted for 16 points.

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