Mystics come away wiser in falling short vs. Liberty

Washington eliminated in WNBA East finals, 64-57

Pro Basketball

August 26, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - It's often said, particularly in the NBA, that a team usually has to get its heart broken in the playoffs to be able to sow the seeds of a championship run down the line.

If the Washington Mystics go on to win a title in the next few seasons, their 64-57 loss to the New York Liberty last night in the third and deciding game of the WNBA Eastern Conference final will, indeed, have been the genesis.

After being drubbed by 17 points in Game 2 at Madison Square Garden, the Mystics returned last night and pushed the three-time Eastern champion Liberty nearly to its breaking point, twice coming back from double-digit deficits to trail by two with just under seven minutes to go.

However, the playoff-callow Mystics, competing in their first conference final, wilted down the stretch as New York outscored them 12-7 late. The Liberty will advance to the league championship series starting Thursday against the defending-champion Los Angeles Sparks.

The emotional toll the loss took on the Mystics was evident as veteran center Vicky Bullett, in her sixth WNBA season, was seen sobbing in the locker room, consoled by an equally red-eyed Murriel Page.

"I'm hurting right now, because I feel like we should be out there celebrating," said Page, the last remaining Mystic player from the franchise's creation in 1998. "But, hey, it just so happens that [last night] is New York's time. Next year, if we're in this position, we know what we're faced with. We know that we can't come out strong in one game and not match up to their intensity in the next game."

The Mystics, who won Game 1 of the series Thursday in Washington, improved their defensive intensity markedly from Saturday night, when the Liberty, en route to a 96-79 win, shot a league-record 66 percent from the field.

The Liberty, which eliminated Washington when the Mystics made their previous playoff appearance in 2000, shot 39.6 percent from the field last night. New York's starting interior of center Tari Phillips and power forward Tamika Whitmore scored a combined 24 points, off from the 46 they had Saturday.

However, Washington could again do little with New York guard Vickie Johnson, who scored 19 points - the same total she had Saturday - including the game-clinching basket with 51.2 seconds remaining in the game on a baseline runner with five seconds left on the shot clock.

Said Washington's Chamique Holdsclaw: "Our defensive effort was a lot better. There were balls that we didn't come up with and we didn't finish our defense early on. We played some tremendous defense, and then in the last four seconds of the [30-second] clock, they would put up some shot or get fouled. If we would have closed our defense out, it would have been better."

The Liberty also made hay from a significant free-throw shooting advantage as it went to the line 26 times, making 22, to Washington's 4-for-7 performance.

"We were right there," said Washington coach Marianne Stanley. "I look at those free-throw numbers and they're totally lopsided and we have no control over that. What can you do? Play on."

Holdsclaw was brilliant in the second half, scoring 15 of her 19 points in leading Washington on a 9-0 charge out of the dressing room to narrow the 11-point halftime deficit to two. She had help from Page, who chipped in 13 points off the bench.

But every time the Mystics would threaten, New York, on its way to its fourth Finals appearance, would hold them off.

"They are a great team," Washington guard Annie Burgess said of the Liberty. "They came to play and they showed us what we need to do to be winners. That's something that we will take into next year. That's something that we're going to take into next year and if we play in the playoffs and in a championship game, we've got to use that."

The nine-month WNBA off-season will give the Mystics, the surprise team of the first two-thirds of the season, a chance to reflect on a season that saw them reverse four years of humiliation only to fall short of their dream.

We exceeded everybody's expectations," Stanley said. "We went right at New York and didn't flinch and, unfortunately, we didn't win it. So, we're going to be back. We've got a taste in our mouths for playoff basketball, for championship basketball, and that's a championship team in that locker room, somewhere down the road. We'll be back."

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