- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Washington Mystics have yet to find an answer for Indiana Fever star Tamika Catchings. One game away from elimination from the WNBA playoffs, their season is riding on it.

Catchings averaged 15.1 points and 7.2 rebounds during the regular season, and the Mystics would gladly take that kind of output against them. But Catchings seems to come up with her best games against the Mystics.

After burning them in all four regular-season contests this year, Catchings was at it again Thursday night in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series with a monster 26-point, 12-rebound performance. A similar performance in Game 2 on Saturday night at Indiana would likely end the Mystics’ season.

“Some of it is having [Mystics players Monique Currie and Alana Beard] as my teammates overseas, kind of talking trash about what we’re going to do against each other when we got back,” Catchings joked while trying to explain her prowess against Washington. “Both teams, we match up so well. We have a lot of the same players, and I think from position to position, everybody takes it as a challenge. We’re all competitors, and when you come out and play a team that’s so much like yours, you feed off of that energy.”

Catchings averaged 20.5 points against the Mystics in four regular-season games, and Thursday’s showing was probably her best against them yet.

She routinely outworked the Mystics for whatever she needed. She guarded whoever had the hot hand. She grabbed five offensive rebounds, almost all from her own misses. And her lone steal came when she poked the ball free from rookie Marissa Coleman after a defensive rebound and quickly converted a layup.

“That’s what Catchings is. She’s a ball of energy,” Beard said. “She’s the type of player that she’s going to keep going. I played with her in Poland, and I know how it is. You’re not going to stop her because you may think you have her stopped the first time - she may take the shot and miss - but she’s going to get that rebound and get that steal. She’s never out of the play.”

It is even more imperative that Washington contains Catchings because Beard is playing at less than 100 percent. The Mystics’ All-Star missed three of their final five regular-season games and is still feeling the effects of a sprained left ankle.

She was just 4-for-12 from the floor in Game 1 and mostly settled for jump shots, whereas she routinely attacks the basket when healthy.

“I think the difference is she’s probably not as explosive as she could be,” Mystics coach Julie Plank said. “We’re used to her getting to the rim a lot and using her athleticism and her slashing ability. She might be a little hesitant.”

Part of the problem Thursday night was that the Mystics got tense in the fourth quarter. After playing well to that point, Washington fell apart defensively from the onset of the final period.

Rookie Briann January was a spark plug for Indiana in the second half, and that seemed to unsettle the Mystics defensively. January continually got into the paint in and scored all 16 of her points in the second half.

The presence of a third scorer shifted Washington’s focus away from its defensive game plan - doubling Catchings and sharpshooter Katie Douglas - and the Fever’s two playmakers had no problems controlling the fourth quarter.

“We know that they are dying to win a championship, but we need to all help,” point guard Lindsey Harding said. “One-on-one, it’s very hard to guard either one of them. At times we did well helping, but towards the end we kind of faded away and were more concerned about our own player.”

If the Mystics don’t figure it out Saturday night in Game 2, their season could easily come to an end.

“I mean, the team is very hard to guard,” Beard said. “They are the No. 1 team in the East for a reason. But we need to continue to adjust, continue to fight.”

• Mike Fratto can be reached at mfratto@washingtontimes.com.

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