Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Washington Mystics’ 10th season got off to a less-than-ideal start last night at Verizon Center.

A slowly recovering sprained shoulder kept the team’s best player, Alana Beard, on the sideline, and the Mystics fell 89-80 to the Connecticut Sun.

“She’s our Gilbert Arenas, so it’s hard. She is one of our star players,” Mystics coach Richie Adubato said of Beard, who led the team with 19.2 points a game last season. “We had our chances tonight though. We made some foolish turnovers late, and we broke down with our offensive execution.”

Adubato’s intricate attack started slowly without Beard. Center Chasity Melvin scored 22 points, and forward DeLisha Milton-Jones added 20, but the Mystics still dropped their fourth straight to the Sun, who swept them in two games in the Eastern Conference semifinals in August.

Beard has been cleared by doctors to play, and Adubato says the decision is “up to her” as to when she wants to come back.

“Had this been a playoff game, I would have played,” Beard said.

Led by star forward Nykesha Sales, who finished with 20 points, the Sun jumped out to an early lead and held Washington scoreless through the first three minutes until Milton-Jones made a 3-pointer for the first points of the 2007 season.

The Sun controlled the tempo for most of the first half, stretching their lead to nine, but the Mystics clawed back thanks to 15 first-half points from Melvin and stellar defense from Milton-Jones, who swatted two of Sun guard Jamie Carey’s jumpers. The Mystics captured the lead briefly in the final minute of the opening quarter following a three-point play by Melvin. But Sales scored six unanswered points and Connecticut took a 49-42 lead into halftime.

“I felt really good. I felt my body is coming back,” Sales said. “We have a new team, and we all want to work together and come out and get better.”

After seeing his team outrebounded 21-14 in the first 20 minutes, Adubato went with a bigger lineup to counter the Sun’s 7-foot-2 center, Margo Dydek. He also switched to a zone to temper Sales’ torrent hand.

The third-year Mystics coach’s tactics proved sound, and reserve center Nakia Sanford, after managing only two first-half points, scored six of Washington’s first 10 points in the third quarter and blocked a shot by Connecticut’s Lindsay Whalen. Coco Miller added seven third-quarter points, trimming the Sun lead to three by the end of the third quarter.

The Mystics took a 75-74 with 4:40 remaining when Milton-Jones made a 3-pointer, but three crucial steals from Sales sunk Washington.

“The zone got us back in the game and got us ahead,” Adubato said. “We had our chances, and we didn’t execute, and we turned the ball over. That’s all you need to do.”

Adding to Adubato’s frustrations was an infraction following his timeout with just less than a minute remaining.

Whalen missed the first of two free throws, but referee Bonita Spence called Milton-Jones for a lane violation, and Whalen converted her second and third chances from the foul line.

“The lane violation — that’s a very crucial time in the game,” Adubato said. “I guess [Milton-Jones] stepped over the line. That’s a situation the referees have to call.”

While disappointed, Melvin believes her team’s opening performance is not a sign of things to come.

“We came out and played with enough energy. It was our first game, everyone coming back together,” the ninth-year veteran said. “We have only played together a week now. I think it showed at times.”

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