- The Washington Times - Friday, September 18, 2009

In each regular-season game against the Indiana Fever this season, the Washington Mystics’ fate came down to fourth-quarter play. So it really wasn’t a surprise that the same was true Thursday night in Game 1 of the teams’ best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinal series.

As was the case four times in the regular season, the Mystics opened the fourth quarter with a string of defensive lapses and mental mistakes on offense. The veteran Fever took full advantage en route to an 88-79 win at Comcast Center.

“The biggest thing is just to stay focused,” Mystics point guard Lindsey Harding said. “This isn’t the only game we’ve done this. This is deja vu all over again. We just have to be able to be physically and mentally strong to fight in the fourth quarter. It’s almost as if they are playing hard, but then they turn it on to another level. We have the capability to do that, but we just need to learn once we get going to keep putting it on.”

The Mystics will try to stave off elimination Saturday night at Indiana.

Washington took a 58-56 lead into the fourth quarter, but that is when the Fever were at their best. Indiana scored the first 11 points of the fourth to take control. The Mystics hardly resisted, allowing the Fever easy basket after easy basket, including a trio of uncontested layups.

“Our defense is there for three quarters; it wasn’t there in the fourth, and we’ve got to fix that,” coach Julie Plank said. “They just got flat-out layups. We’ve got to get back [on defense].”

MVP candidate Tamika Catchings dominated the Mystics all season and continued her mastery of them Thursday. She averaged 20.5 points in the regular season against Washington and poured in 26 in Game 1.

While Washington led most of the game, Catchings kept the Fever close until her teammates surged in the fourth. And when the Mystics drew within 79-76 with 1:59 remaining, Catchings silenced the crowd with a clutch three-point play on the other end.

And it wasn’t just offensively that Catchings frustrated the Mystics. Catchings was all over the court, guarding all five positions at different points and grabbing 12 rebounds.

“I’m not sure what happens, but it seems like against the Mystics she is awesome,” Fever coach Lin Dunn said. “I love that. She is a competitor. When it comes to playoff time, she gets up for it.”

The Mystics controlled the first half largely thanks to the efforts of Crystal Langhorne. After receiving the WNBA’s most improved player award in a pregame ceremony, Langhorne was 5-for-6 from the floor and scored 13 points in the first half.

But the Fever adjusted out of the break and focused their defense on stifling Langhorne. They switched 6-foot-4 center Tammy Sutton-Brown onto her and also rotated Catchings over for help as well.

“She killed us in the first half,” Dunn said. “We were really focusing on limiting her touches and trying to stop her from scoring.”

It worked; Langhorne scored just five points the rest of the game. Meanwhile, the Fever got a spark from rookie Briann January, who played the majority of her 20 minutes in the second half and made the most of them.

She was able to use her quickness to get into the paint and got a slew of open looks. The Mystics were focused on trying to stop Catchings and Indiana’s other All-Star, Katie Douglas, and January was able to use that to her advantage to the tune of 16 points.

Still, Washington maintained its lead into the fourth quarter. But then things fell apart.

“You can keep the first three quarters all you want, but when it comes down to the end of the game, you have to take the game,” guard Alana Beard said. “This is a team where the game isn’t won in the first three quarters; it’s won in the fourth.”

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