Thursday, August 21, 2003

The Washington Mystics celebrated “throwback night” a little too literally. They threw back a 20-point lead against the New York Liberty in losing their 13th home game of the season.

The Liberty finished off the Mystics with an 11-0 run in the final 2:33 and defeated Washington 65-60 last night before 13,779 at MCI Center.

Leading 60-54 with 2:49 left, the Mystics disappeared down the stretch. Crystal Robinson, Tari Phillips, Tamika Whitmore and reserve guard Kristen Sharp combined for 34 second-half points for the Liberty.

The Mystics (9-23) need to win their final two games to avoid being the second-worst team in franchise history behind only the inaugural 3-27 team in 1998.

“We played 37 minutes of some great basketball — we just had some letdowns,” said star forward Chamique Holdsclaw, who led all scorers with 21 points. “You can’t let a team make layups when you are running a 2-3 zone. We just didn’t execute the plays down the stretch. We had some turnovers here and there. It was just a breakdown on our part.”

Coach Marianne Stanley cited her team’s inability to rebound in the second half as the main reason for its collapse. The Liberty outrebounded the Mystics 20-14 over the final two quarters.

“We gave offensive rebound after offensive rebound to them,” Stanley said. “I thought for 30 minutes of that game, we played really, really well. Then, there were these little spurts where we didn’t.”

The Liberty (16-16) may have seen their playoff hopes evaporate just five minutes in, when second-leading scorer, guard Vickie Johnson (14.2 points), was carried from the floor with a sprained right ankle sprain and did not return.

If Johnson, a two-time WNBA All-Star, can’t play in the Liberty’s final two regular-season games — tonight at Madison Square Garden against Indiana and Sunday at Charlotte — the defending Eastern Conference champs may be staying home for the postseason. New York is just a half-game ahead of the Connecticut Sun for the fourth and final conference playoff spot.

With 8:19 left before halftime, the Mystics had a 24-4 advantage. At halftime, Washington led 33-19, with the Liberty’s output tying the season low for a Mystics opponent.

“We knew that it was on their minds to be the spoilers, to eliminate us from the playoffs,” Liberty guard Teresa Weatherspoon said. “In the first half, it looked like we didn’t even want to play in the playoffs.”

For the first 20 minutes, the Mystics (9-23) played the kind of basketball many expected this season. By running and gunning, Washington got easy shots. For most of the season, Washington seemed content to play halfcourt basketball and paid for it in the paint and win/loss column.

With no appreciable size, the team is built for speed, and last night it finally showed. Eight Mystics scored in the half as Washington shot 41.9 percent from the floor and collected 11 assists.

Actually, it was the Mystics perimeter defense that got things rolling. Guards Annie Burgess and Coco Miller double-teamed the ball out top and prevented easy entry passes into the lane. As a result, Liberty center Phillips and power forward Whitmore combined for only five points in the first half.

It was partly the Mystics’ lack of perimeter defense that allowed the Liberty to erase the 20-point deficit. In the second half, the Liberty made five of eight 3-pointers to get back into the game.

Elena Baranova, who came into the game for Johnson, did most of the damage. The 6-foot-5 Russian forward made five of six 3-pointers in the game and finished with a team-high 19 points.

Notes — The Mystics placed rookie guard Zuzana Zirkova on the suspended list and activated center Nakia Sanford. Zirkova, whom the Mystics selected in the second round (21st overall) in April’s WNBA Draft, returned to Slovakia to train with the national team. Zirkova appeared in six games this season for the Mystics and averaged 1.8 points. The Mystics will retain Zirkova’s rights …

Tomorrow night’s home finale against the Connecticut Sun will honor former Mystics center Vicky Bullett at halftime. Bullett, who retired before this season, was instrumental in leading the Mystics to the WNBA Eastern Conference finals last season.

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