By Mel Greenberg
COLLEGE PARK, Md. – It was the same old song for the Washington Mystics at the University Maryland’s Comcast Center Thursday night but with a different meaning because one more playoff loss and they’ll be gone.
Seeking to shake off the four-game sweep in the regular season by the Eastern Conference champion Indiana Fever, the Mystics gave reason the crowd of 6,332 things might be different after Washington held leads of eight points and a slim 58-56 advantage after the third quarter.
But the momentum was already swinging in Indiana’s direction and when the Fever bolted to a 10-0 spurt at the start of the final period, total extended the run to 15-0 across the two quarters and Washington once again succumbed at crunch time, 88-79, in a best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinal opener.
“Obviously, very disappointed with the loss,” first-year Washington coach Julie Plank said. “I thought our team had a chance to win. We were very competitive in the first three quarters. We have to find a way to finish the game.
“We gave up too many points in the paint,” Plank added. “I thought we made some defensive mistakes and gave up a lot of transition baskets. We have to continue to push the ball. Our defense was there for three quarters – I did not think it was there in the fourth and we have to find a way to fix that.”
Olympian Tamika Catchings, a former Tennessee star, had another monster game against the Mystics, scoring 26 points and grabbing 12 rebounds
Katie Douglas added 19 points and former Rutgers star Tammy Sutton-Brown added 12 points.
But the x-factor off the bench was rookie point guard Briann January, who scored 16 points, all in the second half.
“We’ve said all along we might have gotten a steal in the sixth pick with Briann January out of Arizona State,” Fever coach Lin Dunn said. “Just a super point guard, tremendous penetrator and I think when you saw her speed and her ability to get by their quick _ (Matee) Ajavon, (Alana) Beard, as quick as anybody in the league, to get to the rim in the second half, offensively, that really helped us.”
For a long time, a different story, one with a Maryland slant, was writing itself because of the setting and the play of two former Terrapins stars – Willingboro’s Crystal Langhorne and rookie Marissa Coleman, the second overall pick in last April’s draft.
In a building that several hours early saw President Barak Obama speak to an enthusiastic group of Maryland students, Langhorne and Coleman seemed to enjoy the comforts of their former collegiate home.
The Mystics were unable to use their home at the Verizon Center because of an arena conflict.
Langhorne, in particular seemed ready to own the night that began with her being named the league’s most improved player in her second season.
She scored 13 points in the first half before the Fever put some clamps on her the rest of the way.
Langhorne finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Coleman scored 16 and grabbed eight points.
Former Duke star Lindsey Harding, who was also familiar with the Comcast Center from the Atlantic Coast Conference wars between the Blue Devils and Terrapins scored 11.
“It was really exciting for me,” Langhorne, a second-year pro, said of her homecoming. “I never thought I’d play here again. I was pretty pumped up for it.
“I didn’t get too frustrated,” Langhorne said of her second half performance. “They just denied me the ball some, they had Catchings on me. We just went to other things.”
As for her improvement _ she dominated the media voting for award – Langhorne said, “I worked a lot on my shooting. Just the confidence the whole Mystics staff had in me and also my teammates, that helped me improve a lot.”
Plank wasn’t surprised about the play of Lanhorne and Coleman, who even got to enjoy their former lockerroom.
“It doesn’t take much to spark those two,” Langhorne said. “Langhorne, obviously winning that award, we know how improved she is – a double double, she’s very consistent _ you can count on it night in and night out. Just for a second-year player to bring that and be that consistent, is very remarkable and says a lot about Langhorne.
“I know that Coleman was very excited about playing here. Obviously, she has great memories from this place – just a tremendous player. She started out really well for us this season, her injury took its toll, but she’s coming back and she’ll just be better and better.”
Both players along with Chicago rookie Kristi Tolliver and formerCheltenham star Laura Harper, a second-year pro with Sacramento, were key players when Maryland won its first NCAA title in 2006 in Boston.
Dunn spoke of the problems Langhorne presented Thursday night.
“We changed some of the assignments, we put Sutton-Brown on Langhorne and then Catchings because she was really causing us some problems,” Dunn said. “I could certainly understand why she got the most improved player in the league. She was really awesome in that first half.”
But Catchings continued to be awesome, herself, especially once the postseason gets under way.
“It seems like against the Mystics, she’s awesome and I love that,” Dunn said. “She is a competitor. She is a winner. And when it comes playoff time, I don’t know anybody who thrives on that atmosphere any more than she does.
“I think the thing about her is her stat line. She didn’t just score 26 points. She had 12 rebounds. She was 6-for-7 from the free throw line. She was two out of three from the three point line. She gets steals and assists and just sets the tone, defensively,” Dunn added.
“She guarded everybody. At one time or another, she guarded everybody on their team.”
The series moves to Indianapolis on Saturday for the second game and will remain there, if necessary, on Monday night.
Free throw: Indiana’s Sutton-Brown and Washington’s Ajavon were members of Rutgers’ two teams to advance to the NCAA Women’s Final Four under coach C. Vivian Stringer who was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., on Friday night.
Sutton-Brown played on the team that advanced to Philadelphia in 2000, while Ajavon was on the 2007 team that advanced to Cleveland.
Ajavon said she couldn’t watch Stringer’s acceptance speech on TV but got a copy of the tape.
“She was tremendous,” Ajavon said.
After claiming the best overall record in the regular season, the Phoenix Mercury were shocked by the Western defending champion San Antonio Silver Stars, 92-91, in Texas in a semifinal opener.
Sophia Young had 24 points for San Antonio, who qualified the final week of the season and finished 15-19 in the regular season. Penny Taylor scored 18 points for Phoenix, which returns home Saturday to try to even the series. A deciding game will be played, if necessary Monday night in Phoenix.