- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

The scenario for the Washington Mystics was clear heading into the regular season’s final weekend. Sitting fifth in the Eastern Conference with two games left, they needed to win to reach the playoffs.

So Saturday, Lindsey Harding took it upon herself to carry the team and consequently produced her most complete performance of the season in the Mystics’ 82-64 victory. She volunteered to guard Atlanta’s leading scorer, Iziane Castro Marques, and at the same time put up 25 points, four assists and four rebounds while committing just one turnover.

That win helped the Mystics earn the fourth and final playoff spot in the East for the team’s first playoff appearance since 2006. They open a three-game series against No. 1 seed Indiana at 7 p.m. on Thursday at Comcast Center in College Park.

“I’m not surprised. We knew what we were getting in Lindsey Harding,” coach Julie Plank said. “She’s super-competitive; she’ll do whatever the team needs her to do. If we need her to score, she’ll do that. If we need her to stop somebody, she’ll do that.”

From the moment the Mystics hired Plank in November, a dynamic point guard was at the top of Washington’s wish list. Alana Beard was often pressed into ballhandling duties last season, and the natural shooting guard’s production suffered. Plank and first-year general manager Angela Taylor believed Beard was their franchise player, but they needed to let her maximize her talent by playing on the wing.

Familiar with Harding from their time in Minnesota, Plank and Taylor were convinced the former No. 1 pick would be a perfect fit. The Duke product’s lightning-quick speed set up nicely with the up-tempo offense Plank was about to install. In January, the Mystics struck a deal for Harding, sending first- and second-round picks in the 2009 draft to Minnesota.

It was a dream scenario. The Mystics got the explosive point guard they coveted, and Harding got a change of scenery after a pair of injury-plagued seasons.

“It was just something new,” Harding said. “I’m not from [the District], but it was [the] ACC area, two of my old teammates were here, I was very familiar with Julie and I knew Angela Taylor very well. I was excited to come. They told me they wanted me to help them get to the playoffs, get the Mystics on the map a little bit.”

Key to that has been Harding’s relationship with Plank. The two forged a friendship last year in Minnesota while Harding was rehabbing a torn ACL. She spent countless hours getting back into shape with Plank, who was the team’s guards coach. Their time together gave Plank a window into Harding’s psyche, and the coach found the two were aligned in their approach to the game. Plank was impressed with the determination Harding showed to return from the injury.

That relationship continued to blossom this year with the Mystics. Harding led the league in minutes played, and she and Plank maintain a constant dialogue through each game. When play is stopped, Harding will come to the bench for a chat with Plank. If she is on the opposite side of the court, Plank shouts instructions.

“Sometimes she says stuff that I don’t want to hear, and sometimes I say stuff to her that I’m sure probably gets on her nerves, too,” Harding said. “But we have a good relationship because I see the game in her eyes.”

Harding has been the catalyst for the Mystics all season. She was second on the team in points and steals and the leader in assists. Her presence also allowed Beard to get back to an All-Star level. And as a team, the Mystics averaged 76 points, up from a league-worst 69.6 last year.

“Having Lindsey has changed the structure of our team,” Beard said. “She makes the game so much easier for us. She sets the tone on both ends, and we just have to follow her lead.”

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