Thursday, June 14, 2007

It’s probably not easy to watch the last-place Washington Mystics play lately, and DeLisha Milton-Jones took the microphone before last night’s game to show gratitude for the few who came to Verizon Center.

“Thank you for holding on and being true and faithful,” the forward said.

The crowd of 6,838 had to hold on a little while longer, but Washington overcame a poor start with a big late-game run to earn its first victory of the season 86-69 over the Phoenix Mercury.

The Mystics finally have a tally in the win column after losing their first eight games of the season and last 11 dating to their first-round sweep by Connecticut in the playoffs last year.

Monique Currie scored a career-high 25 points off the bench, including 18 in the first half, and starters Alana Beard (19) and Nikki Teasley (12) each reached double figures.

“The weight is off, and now it’s going to be even tougher now,” Mystics interim coach Tree Rollins said. “All in all it’s a great win and a great game plan. The players went out on the court and executed the game plan 100 percent.”

That seemed to be missing in Washington’s eight losses. The Mystics built a reputation for blowing leads late in the game, but they used an aggressive effort in the final period — including a 15-2 run in the final 2:30 — to put Phoenix and star Diana Taurasi (28 points) away.

Beard was key during that quarter, stealing the ball after she missed a free throw and driving in for a reverse layup. On the next possession, Beard picked up a loose ball and fed it to Mystics guard Nikki Blue, who made a pull-up jumper as part of a 7-1 run that made it 57-51.

Beard did all this despite her injured shoulder. After the game, she was attached to an electronic simulation machine — which she forgot to wear when she went to sleep Tuesday night, perhaps worsening the injury.

“I wanted to help out defensively because sometimes when your offensive side isn’t going, you have to do something defensively,” Beard said. “I’ve always been the person who wants to do it on every side of the court.”

Meanwhile, Currie came off the bench two minutes into the game when guard Tamara James recorded her second foul. Rollins also saw Phoenix playing zone, which prompted him to play Currie so she could attack the basket. Currie took 14 of the Mystics’ 24 free throw attempts and made 13.

“This past week I’ve started to become more comfortable with everything — with the players and the plays,” Currie said. “Against New York I was able to get back to playing basketball the way I like to play — getting to the basket and getting to the free throw line. It carried over tonight.”

Still, Washington’s first quarter struggles continued two games after its record-low eight-point start against Indiana.

Visibly upset with his team’s early performance last night, Rollins called a timeout with 4:31 left in the first period with Mystics trailing 10-4. He didn’t allow any of his players to sit down.

“I’ve never heard him speak in that tone before,” Blue said.

Rollins’ unusual approach worked, and the team began to succeed playing his uptempo style. Currie made a layup to give Washington its first lead at 18-17 with 14 seconds left in the quarter, and the momentum continued in the form of a 14-0 run in the second quarter to create a 35-25 lead with 3:24 left in the half.

After Phoenix crept back to take the lead at 41-38 in the third quarter, Rollins again called a timeout to gather his team, huddling his players together as they paced on the sideline.

The Mystics responded again and after another timeout with six minutes left in the game used a 12-0 run to secure their first victory in front of an appreciative crowd.

“They are a vital part to us winning,” Milton-Jones said. “When you have the fans on your side and the energy, you can feel it from them even though it may not be a lot of people in the gym.”

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