- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 9, 2003

The Washington Mystics have surprised everybody this season — including, undoubtedly, themselves.

One year removed from reaching the WNBA’s Eastern Conference finals, Washington is in last place with a 2-13 record, the league’s worst. What happened? How could they be so good one season (20 wins including the playoffs) and so bad the next? The Mystics’ players and staff don’t seem to have a clue.

“I can’t believe this — this turnaround is definitely unreal,” said five-time All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw.

Said Judy Holland-Burton, the team’s senior vice president of business and basketball operations: “We’re just struggling — there is no other word to describe it. We’re playing well in some stretches. We really like what we have because there is so much potential there.”

A loss tonight at MCI Center against the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Sparks (14-3) would be the Mystics’ 11th straight, tying the team record set in 1998 when Washington finished 3-27. They’re also approaching the Detroit Shock’s league-record 13 straight last season.

“There isn’t any one thing, just a lot of things that I have been saying all along, but some of our progress has been stymied by this [losing streak],” second-year coach Marianne Stanley said. “That’s an unfortunate thing, but I also think it’s a reality. The intelligent thing to do, the professional thing to do right now is to acknowledge it and say, ‘We’ve got to minimize that level of frustration because it’s counterproductive.’”

The lack of a true center has been a major factor in the skid. For example, during last week’s three-game western trip, the Mystics were severely victimized in the post.

In the first game, Sacramento’s 6-foot-3 center, Yolanda Griffith, scored a game-high 20 points in the Monarchs’ 83-62 win. The next night, 6-5 Storm center Lauren Jackson scored a game-high 25 points in Seattle’s 76-72 victory. And on Saturday, Houston’s low-post combination of 6-2 power forward Tina Thompson (18 points) and 6-5 center Michelle Snow (13 points) sparked the Comets’ 76-54 rout.

In training camp, the Mystics had 6-5 center Jenny Mowe but released her on the final cut day. Mowe, whom Washington selected with the eighth overall pick in the dispersal draft for players from the folded Miami Sol and Portland Fire franchises, gave the Mystics legitimate size inside.

However, Mowe lacked quickness and athleticism. She was waived in favor of 5-11 Ball State rookie Tamara Bowie, who was cut when the Mystics signed 6-foot forward Jocelyn Penn on June9. In essence, the Mystics waived a big body for Penn, a role player who averages 7.1 minutes and 2.6 points, and as a result are getting mauled in the paint.

Because of their lack of size, the Mystics have played a lot of 2-3 zone defense. If they had kept Mowe and played a zone, the 231-pound center certainly would have clogged the lane. Yet Stanley defends the decision to cut her.

“We went with what we thought would be an opportunity to give ourselves some height and size and it just didn’t work out,” Stanley said of selecting Mowe in the dispersal draft. “Part of her inexperience was also a lack of poise at being given a bigger role than what she had [with Portland]. I didn’t know that going into it, but I discovered that in working with her. Also, some of the physical limitations were more pronounced to the degree that we felt it was counterproductive. We went with a decision that was appropriate at the moment, and I still stand by it.”

But as the Mystics’ season reaches the midway point tonight, the team still has not addressed its post problem. With the trade deadline looming on July18, Washington appears content to go the rest of the season without a center and hope for the best.

The Mystics have a surplus of 6-2 forwards, their greatest assets. The only untouchable on the team is Holdsclaw. Unfortunately, all trade talks begin and end with the name of the team’s leading scorer (17.7 points) and the WNBA’s leading rebounder (12.6).

“There are not too many centers up for grabs right now — people who have them are hanging on to them and the price is dear,” Stanley said. “I don’t see any need to get into trading for a center, inexperienced or otherwise, at this stage of the game. We’re not going to make a bad move.”

One reason for their collapse, the Mystics say, is the retirement of Vicky Bullett. The veteran averaged just 8.5 points and 5.8 rebounds last season — hardly numbers that can’t be overcome. Nonetheless, the Mystics would be interested in regaining Bullett, now 35, should the former Maryland Terrapin decide to return, as Cynthia Cooper did recently with Houston.

“If Vicky called me and said, ‘I want to unretire,’ I would be happy to take that phone call,” Stanley said. “We’ve tried to call Vicky. We’ll see what the weeks ahead bring.”

Lack of productivity from the three starters other than Holdsclaw and shooting guard Coco Miller (13.1 points) has contributed greatly to the Mystics’ downfall. The point guard situation is almost as troubling as the lack of a center.

Starter Annie Burgess (4.0 points, 4.1 assists) is not an offensive threat. Perhaps it’s mere coincidence, but the team’s two victories came when Burgess had her two best scoring games: eight points in the season-opening 74-70 win over the Charlotte Sting and 14 points in a 79-72 victory over the San Antonio Silver Stars. The 5-7 Burgess has scored a total of two points in the last four losses.

In fact, the overall offense has been abysmal despite the efforts of Holdsclaw and Miller. The Mystics are the worst shooting (37.5 percent) and the worst 3-point shooting (26.5 percent) team in the league and also turn the ball over 15.2 times a game.

And in Monday’s 62-56 loss to the Charlotte Sting, the Mystics achieved another notable negative by not going to the free throw line once — a WNBA record. Opponents have taken 313 free throws to Washington’s 181 this season, indicating the Mystics are too passive and not willing to attack the basket.

Usually, the Mystics are content to fire up ill-advised shots from the outside — either hasty ones with nobody in rebounding position or forced shots as the clock expires. Regardless of the situation, the numbers say the Mystics haven’t shot the ball well.

“We just have to do the best with what we have right now,” Holdsclaw said. “I guess it’s a little too late to be complaining.”

Not for the team’s fans.

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