Mystics' home debut draws record crowd 20,674 fans at MCI Center see 85-76 win over Utah; Women's Basketball


WASHINGTON -- The carnival on F Street, featuring a campground of Detroit Red Wings fans earlier in the week, continued last night as the WNBA's Washington Mystics prepared to make their home debut at MCI Center, a game in which they defeated the Utah Starzz, 85-76.

With 15 minutes remaining until tip-off, fans such as Karmin Powell, a 7-year-old from Temple Hills, were milling around the arena with no apparent purpose except maybe to observe the largest crowd in the short history of professional women's basketball, 20,674. That broke the previous record of 18,937 set at an Aug. 16, 1997, game in Charlotte, N.C.

Confronted with the expectant audience -- which included Tipper Gore, Donna Shalala and Barbara Mikulski -- the Mystics (1-3) took great pains not to disappoint. They jumped out to a 29-12 lead and used 29 points from guard Nikki McCray for their first win of the season.

"What a crowd," Mystics coach Jim Lewis said. "I'm glad that we were able to bring the victory home. Stats are irrelevant right now; the bottom line is what we're going to talk about."

McCray was joined in double figures by Alessandra Santos de Oliveira with 14 points and Rita Williams, Penny Moore and Murriel Page with 11 apiece. But the Mystics nearly buckled at the end, as the Starzz (2-2) used a 50-9 advantage in bench points to narrow the score to 75-71 on a basket by Olympia Scott with 2: 47 left.

Pushed by an oppressively loud crowd, McCray made a key pull-up jumper and three free throws down the stretch to preserve the victory.

"That got us going; they gave us a big lift," McCray said of the crowd. "If we didn't have a sellout crowd, I don't know if we would have been able to do this."

The excitement was not about the quality of the teams. The expansion Mystics came into the game with an 0-3 record, averaging 24 turnovers a game.

The Starzz, though they entered with a 2-1 record, are nondescript with the exception of 7-2 rookie Margo Dydek, and had the league's worst record last season.

Still, the nation's capital produced a crowd that surprised even those within the organization, such as general manager Wes Unseld, who credited the vision of team owners Abe and Irene Pollin.

"I didn't expect it [the crowd] because I'm not smart enough like them to have that kind of vision," Unseld said. "But I also saw the effort of a lot of people in the organization, to do things to let the people know that the team is here."

As Karmin Powell posed for her father's camera, dribbling an orange-and-cream WNBA ball in front of a large WNBA balloon, )) she couldn't claim to know much about the Mystics. Her favorite basketball player is Sheryl Swoopes of the Houston Comets. Her next two favorites are Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

But Edward Powell said that that isn't necessarily the point, instead focusing on the fact that the team provides an opportunity for role models Karmin wouldn't have had a decade ago.

"The most important thing is they have the opportunity, where they didn't have any," Powell said, explaining part of his motivation for attending. "Now they [younger people] have other people to look up to besides Michael Jordan. Men can't teach girls how to be women."

Among some, however, there was skepticism about how the Mystics will fare after the spell of the marketing campaign by team and league wears off.

Though Washington is known as a sports-crazy town, the city is fickle when it comes to teams other than the Redskins. For example, the Capitals' following didn't begin to pick up steam until the team was on the cusp of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Though the crowds may not always be this massive, Lewis -- at times seen pleading on the sideline with fans to get even louder -- said women's basketball should endure.

"Women's basketball is here to stay; that's an understatement," Lewis said, crediting the growth of college basketball over the years. "The strong collegiate programs have set the table for what we had tonight."

Pub Date: 6/20/98

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