Foes now sisters in arms

WNBA: Battling each other for the NCAA women's title just a few months ago, Stacey Dales-Schuman and Asjha Jones stand united for the resurgent Mystics.

July 30, 2002|By Travis Haney | Travis Haney,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - A few months ago, if you mentioned to Stacey Dales-Schuman anything to do with the University of Connecticut, the former University of Oklahoma All-American would have cringed. Perhaps she'd even let a muffled grumble fly from under her breath. As she goes through her rookie season as a Washington Mystic, however, her heart has softened a bit toward her former nemesis. After all, she punches the time clock with a former Husky on a daily basis now.

"I think it's neat like that," said Mystics rookie and former UConn forward Asjha Jones, moments after receiving a jovial snarl from Dales-Schuman. Perhaps it's just that leftover bitterness stemming from the Sooners' 82-70 loss to Connecticut in the NCAA title game in April.

But the joking growl is about all the ill will you'll find between these two, who have become sisters - a rookie tag team - this season for Washington (15-9), which has dropped three straight but still leads the WNBA Eastern Conference by a half game going into tonight's game with Orlando at MCI Center. Tip-off is 7:30 p.m.

Dales-Schuman is, upon first glance, the team's finesse outside player, knocking down perimeter jump shots and distributing the ball to teammates. Jones strikes you as the team's token bruiser down low, in the lineup to butt heads with some of the league's toughest players.

While these surface assessments are adequate, they're not entirely accurate. What sets apart the Mystics' third and fourth overall draft picks (Dales-Schuman was third, Jones was fourth) is their ability to do the opposite if need be. Several times each game, Dales-Schuman will get gritty for a rebound or plow face-first into the floor for a loose ball. And Jones isn't afraid to step out to the wing area and display a surprisingly soft touch for a 6-foot-2, 198-pound forward.

"We drafted them in part because both of them are really versatile," Mystics coach Marianne Stanley said, "and that has really factored in huge."

Larger still since June 28, when franchise player Chamique Holdsclaw went down with an ankle injury that kept her out of the lineup for nearly a month. Holdsclaw, who returned Saturday and scored a career-high 32 points in a loss to Seattle, was leading the league in scoring and rebounding when she was hurt. Jones' court time increased significantly in Holdsclaw's absence. She went from playing about 15 minutes a game to more than 25, including 37 minutes July 20 against Utah, when she scored a season-high 14 points.

Also, Dales-Schuman was asked to run the point more than she had been when starter Annie Burgess missed several games in July because of an injured calf muscle.

"I think we've had to rely on them more than maybe we anticipated in the beginning," Stanley said. "Fortunately, they're both the kind of players that don't mind having a lot of responsibility placed on their shoulders, and they can handle it."

Frankly, they had no choice. After the Mystics' 10-22 season last year that led to the firing of Tom Maher and the promotion of Stanley, a longtime assistant, the rookies were to be called upon for immediate contribution.

"Oh yeah, we knew they'd play for us in their first year. But how much of an impact and how much of a leadership role they would each take" was the question, Stanley said. "We were hopeful it would be significant, but I don't think anybody could have imagined the impact that both of these players have had."

Statistically, the pair stacks up with any rookie tandem in the league. Dales-Schuman, who was selected to replace Holdsclaw on the All-Star team last month, is averaging 11.2 points. She's started all but one of the Mystics' 24 games and led the team in scoring five times, including two of the season's first four games. She is also sixth in the league in three-point shooting, hitting 43 percent of her shots from behind the arc.

Jones' season averages (seven points, three rebounds a game) might not be staggering, but it's the smaller things she does that impress Stanley.

"I think Asjha has really settled into playing on the front line," Stanley said. "I think she's adjusted to how physical and quick the post players are in this league. I know she's seen herself as a physical player on the college level, but stepping up to this level, she's got a new perspective as to what physical really is."

Many factors have led to the Mystics' success this season. The rookies are near the top of that list.

"They're huge," Stanley said. "Everyone has asked me, `What's been the difference this year?' There have been a number of differences, not the least of which is our top two draft picks. They've really come through for us."

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