Holdsclaw, Mystics have no illusions on task against Liberty

Playoff experience, hard-nosed approach give N.Y. East edge

Pro Basketball

August 22, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It didn't take long -- roughly a few minutes after the New York Liberty had won its way into the WNBA's Eastern Conference finals-- for the latest salvo to be fired in its rivalry with the Washington Mystics.

Liberty guard Vickie Johnson, who has a reputation for being a tough defender, declared, after shutting down Indiana Fever rookie Tamika Catchings in the second half of New York's win over the Fever on Tuesday night, that she was looking forward to guarding Mystics star forward Chamique Holdsclaw.

The teams will meet in the Eastern finals, which open at MCI Center tonight.

"I can truly say that I'd rather guard Holdsclaw than Catchings any day. ... Catchings doesn't give up on any plays," Johnson said in the postgame interview.

Holdsclaw led the league in scoring and rebounding this season. Considering that she had 22 and 23 points in the two games she played against New York, Johnson's words may seem boastful, if not inflammatory, especially given that the Liberty would appear to have the upper hand in the burgeoning rivalry.

"When you want to go in and claim something, you want to do it against the best," Holdsclaw said after Washington's practice yesterday.

"We know that they've been in this situation before, and they're probably hungry because last year they got upset by Charlotte and they didn't get to play in the finals. I know that they will give us their best shot and, hey, if we can take a shot from the best and survive, it makes you better."

Holdsclaw was not apprised of Johnson's comments yesterday, but they likely will add fuel to the competition between the two franchises that exists on and off the court.

Since the Mystics joined the WNBA, one year after the league's founding in 1997, the two franchises have battled for the best attendance, with Washington winning in four of five seasons.

The Liberty narrowly won out last year, and the Mystics made a big push to reclaim the crown this year, going so far as to raise a banner at halftime of the final home game of the regular season. The game was played against -- who else? -- New York.

On the court, however, the rivalry has been one-sided in favor of the Liberty, which has been to the Eastern Conference finals three times, winning twice. Washington has just one previous playoff trip before this season, a berth in 2000, when the Mystics were swept in two games by New York.

This year, the Mystics burst out to a 14-5 start and were poised to put a hammerlock on the Eastern Conference race -- until they played host to the Liberty on July 13. With an injured Holdsclaw out of the lineup, New York manhandled Washington, 67-53, starting a mid-summer swoon in which the Mystics won only three of their remaining 12 games.

Washington managed to recover a measure of respectability two weeks ago when it beat the Liberty at Madison Square Garden, 65-54, to clinch a playoff spot and keep alive its flickering hopes of winning the East regular-season race. New York doused that spark the next night with a convincing, 74-66 win at MCI to clinch the East regular-season title by a game.

The Liberty, one of the most physical teams in the WNBA, figures to make Holdsclaw its prime target as it did Catchings, the league's Rookie of the Year, by switching defenders, using some junk defenses and clutching and grabbing.

"What I know is that they are going to have a strategy in mind for Chamique for limiting her touches, just like they would for any key player on a team," said Washington coach Marianne Stanley. "I know that's coming and we're prepared for it. I don't think they will be particularly physical with her. I think they're a physical team with everybody. That's how they play. That's OK."

For her part, Holdsclaw, a native of Astoria, N.Y., in Queens, is eager to mix it up.

"It won't be me going out of the game," she said. "We're not going to stand for that. ... We're not the strongest, but we've got a lot of heart. It's not going to be them beating up on me. I know I have 11 other teammates who have my back.

"We're going to let them know from the jump-off that we're coming out and we're going to be just as intense as you are."

WNBA playoffs

Conference finals

(Best of three;*-if necessary)

Eastern Conference

New York vs. Washington

Today: at Washington, 8 p.m. Saturday: at New York, 8 p.m. *Sunday: at New York, 5 p.m.

Western Conference

Utah vs. Los Angeles

Today: at Utah, 10 p.m. Saturday: at Los Angeles, 4 p.m. *Sunday: at Los Angeles, 7 p.m.

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