- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 12, 2009

By losing four games by fewer than 10 points in the past three weeks, the Washington Mystics were reminded of the importance of playing well in late-game situations.

Back at Verizon Center on Saturday night for the first time since June 25, the Mystics played another tight contest. This time, they were the ones to seal the game with a late surge.

Point guard Lindsey Harding hit a go-ahead jumper with 3:07 remaining, and the Mystics ended the game on a 12-0 run to beat the Los Angeles Sparks 75-63.

“That’s how it’s going to be for us right now,” Harding said. “We’re young and we’re not really going to blow out anybody, because everybody in this league is so good. That’s why we have to be able to win these close games. If you think about the games we lost [on the road], those were all games we could have won.”

The Mystics (6-5) led by as many as 24 in the first half and seemed well on their way to a comfortable win against the banged-up Sparks. Center Lisa Leslie missed her sixth straight game with a sprained knee and is not with the team on its current road trip. Reigning MVP Candace Parker is still working her way back into game shape after giving birth during the offseason.

Still, Washington saw its lead slowly evaporate during the third quarter and early part of the fourth. After pushing the ball at will in the first half, the Mystics started settling for jump shots early in the shot clock, most of which were off-target. That gave Los Angeles (4-7) more than enough easy baskets to creep back into the game.

But Washington buckled down when it had to and dominated the final three minutes.

“I was just proud of the way we stayed resilient and we took the game,” said center Chasity Melvin, who finished with 14 points. “Normally in the past, we would have lost. For me, it was great for our young players to get the confidence we can win these close games.”

The Mystics forced Los Angeles to get its scoring from anybody but its stars. Parker didn’t get her first points until there were five minutes left, and the usually deadly Tina Thompson was ineffective, going 0-for-6 from behind the 3-point arc.

Marie Ferdinand-Harris and Betty Lennox each had 10 points to lead the Sparks.

“We had Monique [Currie] and Marissa [Coleman] guarding [Parker] most of the time, and we threw a lot of help,” Mystics coach Julie Plank said. “We were double-teaming Tina Thompson on the block, and we were leaving their guards, trying to give Marissa and Monique help inside. We can’t leave those types of players one-on-one on the block, and I thought our team stuck to the game plan well.”

The Mystics jumped out to an 18-2 lead behind the hot shooting of guard Alana Beard, who finished with a game-high 26 points. She scored Washington’s first 13 points as the Mystics led 22-7 after the first quarter, an advantage that peaked at 34-10 with 4:34 remaining in the second before the Sparks started chipping away.

“I think the team expects me to get them started,” Beard said. “Coach likes to run plays for me in the beginning [of the game]. I think the team feeds off me - not just offensively but defensively. It’s up to me to come in and set that tone.”

The win halted Washington’s two-game losing streak as it kicked off a six-game homestand. More importantly, it washed away the bitterness of the Mystics’ previous late-game falters.

“We talked about going 6-0 at home [on this homestand],” Plank said. “And I’m really proud of them closing out that game.”

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