- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2011

The free-throw line is a struggling team’s best friend, and the Washington Mystics certainly used it to their advantage Saturday night.

Washington converted 28 of 29 free-throw attempts en route to a 91-81 victory over the New York Liberty, its first win since July 17 and first at Verizon Center since June 26. The worst team in the Eastern Conference certainly didn’t look it, leading New York by as many as 22 points in the commanding victory.

“It was really nice just so we can see that we can do this,” forward Crystal Langhorne said. “Even the games we won were really close, so just to have a game like this, I think it helps our confidence a lot just to show us that we can win games [and] we can win by a large margin.”

Matee Ajavon tied her career-high and set a team-high for the season with 32 points on 10 of 16 shooting. Langhorne added 20 points and nine rebounds as the Mystics shot 50 percent from the floor and dominated New York on the glass, 32-20. Cappie Pondexter and Plenette Pierson had 21 and 20, respectively, for the Liberty.

Head coach Trudi Lacey said that the win was just what her team needed after four straight losses, each coming by seven points or less. One of those games was a 75-71 loss in New York two games ago.

“The main thing for this team is they just have to continue to work and get better and learn to play together,” Lacey said. “I’ve said it all along, they’ve got a lot of fight in them and they continue to fight, especially when things weren’t going their way.”

It was a night to remember for Ajavon, who hit a jumper at the 6:25 mark of the first quarter and never looked back. The third-year guard went on to score Washington’s next eight points, including a step-back jumper that put her over the 1,000-point mark for her career. Ajavon notched eight more in the second quarter, giving her 18 total in the first half — nearly four more than her season average (14.7 ppg). As she put it: “The shots were falling.”

“When she [Ajavon] gets going, it’s very hard to guard her,” Langhorne said. “I don’t think there’s a player in the league that can guard her — she’s so quick and so explosive.”

Washington was in control throughout the game, leading by 12 points at halftime and no fewer than nine down the stretch. After putting up just 59 points in a 61-59 loss against Indiana last Friday, the Mystics notched 50 points in the first half alone against New York.

“I think that they’re starting to understand what we want [and] what it takes to win,” Lacey said. “It’s starting to come together.”

The Mystics are still in the basement of the Eastern Conference, sporting a 4-14 record and the league’s second-weakest offense at 72.1 points per game. But their recent struggles made tonight’s win even more gratifying and may point towards a brighter future; Washington will host four of its next six games at homer.

“I know we talked as a team about our mentality changing,” Langhorne said. “We can’t go into games hoping to win or saying like, ‘We can play with them.’ We have to go into every game we play … expecting to win.”

This shift in mentality came on the heels of a strong week of practice. Lacey gave her players three days off, and the rest seemed to give them a newfound focus that manifested itself in the victory — especially at the free-throw line.

“It is something that’s been an Achilles heel for us because we’ve lost some close games and we hadn’t shot well from the free-throw line,” Lacey said. “We’ve just really continued to focus on it, but I think it just speaks to their overall confidence.”

“I think free throws are just focus,” Langhorne agreed. “When we’re shooting at practice we always shoot 85-plus percent. I think for us to do that in game showed how focused we were and how badly we wanted to win.”

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