Dreaming of Moving Up; Mystics Down Atlanta, Seize Second
Kate Smith scored 18 points to led the Mystics to victory over the Dream during a WNBA game in Atlanta on Tuesday, August 3, 2010. Kirk Queen/DC Sports Box file photo
ATLANTA- GA - There were many who saw Sunday’s Mystics victory over the visiting Tulsa Shock as nothing more than the norm; a superior team exhibiting dominance over an overmatched opponent.  As well as Washington played then, it wasn’t enough to convince more prudent observers that the team was turning a corner and rounding into a playoff ready competitor.  They needed a little more convincing.
 
Washington’s hard-fought road 86-78 victory over the conference leading Atlanta Dream Tuesday should more than suffice as ‘Exhibit B’.

Washington extended their winning streak to three, having defeated both teams ahead of them in the conference standings during that span.  Tuesday’s win placed the Mystics solidly in the conference’s second seed if the playoffs were to begin today – a far cry from just last week when the team was in danger of slipping out of the playoff picture completely in the hotly contested East.

The Mystics started well early, looking every bit the part of the hungrier team in the contest as they built an eight point halftime lead on the strength of tremendous defensive effort and a sharp shooting touch.  Atlanta, one of the league’s best home teams, refused to be pushed around on their court and staged a second half comeback that almost turned Washington’s most complete effort since the All Star break into a heartbreaking loss.

Atlanta controlled the third quarter with two big runs, quickly erasing the Mystic’s eight point lead and tying the contest at 46 following a Castro Marques runner with 6:19 remaining in the quarter.  The teams traded baskets for much of the remainder of the period, but when the horn sounded ending the third, the damage had been done.  Washington had allowed the Dream to take the momentum and the lead, trailing by one as the final period began.

Atlanta seemingly seized control of the game when they opened up the fourth quarter on a 13-2 run to take a 64-58 lead with 5:58 remaining.  The clock stopped with 5:50 remaining following a Dream foul and an official timeout.  During the timeout, Head Coach Julie Plank rallied her troops.

Washington responded to Plank by ripping off a 12-0 run of their own to seize the lead and reclaim the momentum – ultimately earning the win and moving into second place and within one game of the Conference lead with eight games remaining.

The win might have been a costly one for Plank’s Mystics, however.  Starting point guard Lindsey Harding had to be carried to the locker room by training staff members after rolling her ankle midway through the fourth quarter.  Harding did not return to the game, and the extent of the injury is unknown, but any time missed – particularly with the roster already short and Washington dressing just nine players for most games – could be detrimental to the team’s championship hopes.

Katie Smith (18 points) assumed the point guard responsibilities after Harding’s exit and with rookie guard Ashley Houts apparently unable to play.  It was the stellar play of rookie guard Matee Ajavon, however, that likely secured a win for the Mystics.  Ajavon provided a significant spark off of the Washington bench by scoring 10 of her 14 points in the fourth quarter.

“Katie did a great job running the point for us,” Plank told reporters after the game, “She's been in different roles for us, and I thought Ajavon coming off the bench for us was huge.”

Four Mystics reached the double-digit scoring mark, including forward/center Crystal Langhorne (15 points, 12 rebounds) who has proven to be the team’s most reliable post player this season.

Atlanta was led by forward Angel McCoughtry’s 30 points, but the league’s most proficient scorer and the Dream starting lineup received little assistance from the bench.  Four of the five Dream starters scored in double figures, but the reserves managed just 14 points total.

Washington’s road doesn’t get much easier in the near future.  The team will continue their road trip with stops in New York to face the resurgent Liberty on Friday before heading to Connecticut to face the Sun in the first of an away-and-home against the Sun.  After returning home to host Connecticut, Washington will host two more games at the Verizon Center (versus Minnesota and league-leading Seattle).  The team will then travel to San Antonio (August 17) before returning for their final home game of the season against New York.  Connecticut, at 13-13, is the only opponent left on the Mystics’ schedule currently not in a playoff spot.  The Sun is only two games off of pace though, and Washington will get their best effort.

The Mystics will close the regular season out against Atlanta, possibly with first place in the conference on the line.  It isn’t over until it’s over.