- The Washington Times - Monday, August 31, 2009

On the surface, the Washington Mystics had a successful Sunday afternoon. They got a much-needed win and in the process vaulted back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

But the fate of their season may have taken a critical blow when All-Star guard Alana Beard had to be carried off the court with 3:08 remaining in the fourth quarter after suffering an ankle injury for the second game in a row. Beard was driving hard to the basket when she collided with Minnesota’s Candice Wiggins, immediately collapsing to the floor and clutching her left ankle.

Beard was ready to return to Tuesday’s game against Seattle after rolling her right ankle in the third quarter. But Sunday’s injury - a left ankle sprain - appeared much more serious; she buried her face in her arms while trainer Navin Hettiarachchi massaged her ankle on Washington’s bench. Beard tried to stand up several times while her teammates finished off the 81-75 win, but she only could wince as each attempt to put weight on her ankle was futile.

“She’s playing through a lot of pain right now,” Mystics coach Julie Plank said. “That’s what a lot of teams are doing this time of the year. … I know she would give anything to be out there. The most important thing for our team is that they’re 100 percent healthy. It’s a good thing we don’t play until Thursday. So [she’ll] take three days off, and you have to get healthy for the games.”

Twenty minutes into Sunday’s game at Verizon Center, it seemed as if the Mystics had forgotten the dire nature of their predicament. Having just returned from a 1-3 road trip, Washington entered the day outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Yet they were still missing easy layups and open jumpers early while allowing clear lanes to the basket on the other end - all against a Minnesota team that has just three wins since mid-July.

But a simple halftime adjustment made all the difference. Minnesota’s quick lineup is most effective coming off screens, so the Mystics increased their aggressiveness by picking up the Lynx ballhandlers at halfcourt. That disrupted Minnesota’s offense, and the Mystics took control by outscoring the Lynx 33-16 in the third quarter.

Washington worked primarily on its offense in practice last week, focusing on pushing the ball and making the extra pass to get an open look. The results were evident - for the first time this season, six Mystics players scored in double figures.

“It’s great to see that when we work on something, it works,” said Crystal Langhorne, who had a team-high 18 points and 10 rebounds. “Having six players in double figures makes it easy because when everybody’s scoring, it’s so much harder to defend.”

The musical chairs in the Eastern Conference standings continued. The Mystics (14-15) moved into third place because New York (12-17) beat Chicago (14-16) earlier Sunday afternoon and Connecticut (14-16) lost to Los Angeles later Sunday night.

“This was definitely a big win for us,” Lindsey Harding said. “When we were out West and we saw the East Coast teams losing, we were like, ‘Come on, the window is open for us to punch through.’ We knew that this game was big, and it could get us back up there.”

But after another injury, only time will tell how effective Beard can be down the stretch.

“She does so much for us. She’s a fighter; she works extremely hard,” Harding said. “She’ll be fine. I believe that.”

Note -The Mystics wore pink jerseys as part of the WNBA’s breast health awareness initiative and held a postgame auction to benefit Sibley Memorial Hospital.

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