Trying to break through mist


WASHINGTON - Since her days at the low post at the University of Maryland, Vicky Bullett has never been at a loss for words, but this season with the Washington Mystics has left her scrambling for the right words.

Bullett, an off-season acquisition for the Washington Women's National Basketball Association team, sat at her locker here at MCI Center after a close loss to the Phoenix Mercury last week, puzzled by the inconsistency and the controversy that have marked the Mystics' play to date.

"When we win, we have a good game, but when we lose, we have the worst game in the world. That's not consistency for basketball or any sport. You need consistency, and we're not there," Bullett said.

With forward Chamique Holdsclaw and shooting guard Nikki McCray - both members of this year's Olympic team - Bullett, a two-time Olympian, and a beefed-up bench, the Mystics, a season removed from a 3-27 mark, were bound to find respectability.

However, now that they have, they aren't so sure what to do with it.

"We need to re-evaluate what we're doing on the court and do it better, watch some film and try to correct the errors we're making," said center Murriel Page. "We need to play as a team because that's how we'll win."

"We're coming out and trying hard, but for whatever reason, we're coming up short," said McCray, "and to be a playoff team, we've just got to find a way to make it happen. "It comes down to stopping people. We don't get stops, and we don't execute."

This season, the team jumped out of the shoot, winning two of its first three and earning the respect of New York Liberty coach Richie Adubato, who called the Mystics the favorites to win the Eastern Conference after they easily handled visiting New York in a nationally televised game.

When things click, the Mystics look terrific. Their 40 percent three-point shooting leads the WNBA, while their 47 percent shooting from the field is second, just behind three-time defending champion Houston.

But, as might be expected from a team with only one player, Bullett, over 30, the Mystics' play has fluctuated wildly, from game to game and even within games. Their 17.6 turnovers rank 13th in the 16-team league, ahead of only two expansion teams and the struggling Utah Starzz, while Holdsclaw and McCray are the only two Mystics scoring in double figures.

"We talk ahead a lot, and we have to go day-to-day," said Bullett, who reached the postseason in each of her three seasons in Charlotte before she was traded to the Mystics. "Who doesn't want to get to the playoffs?

But we can't get there looking past today or tomorrow. We have a long road even though the season is short. Everybody wants to get there. The question is how you get there."

Take Friday's game against Phoenix, for instance. The Mystics led the Mercury 49-41 with just under 16 minutes to go, then didn't score for nearly nine minutes as Phoenix blew by them on the way to a 66-57 victory.

The season's ugliest loss, a two-point setback to the expansion Miami Sol the week before, ended similarly, with Miami making a late comeback on a Mystics team that suddenly stopped scoring.

What those two losses, which sandwiched defeats to Sacramen- to and Los Angeles, had in common was that they all came at home, where the team has gone 2-5, oddly enough, before the WNBA's largest crowds.

"We're going to have to determine which way we go," Holdsclaw said. "We're going to have to pick it up. We can't be playing so badly on our home court, having leads and giving them up and losing. We have to start winning."

Holdsclaw has been in the middle of the biggest controversy in the team's brief history. After the loss to Sacramento two weeks ago, the reigning Rookie of the Year, who was benched late in the game, said she was "humiliated," adding that the players would win in spite of, not because of, coach Nancy Darsch, who is in her second season with Washington.

Peace was eventually mediated by general manager Melissa McFerrin and University of Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, for whom Holdsclaw played and for whom Darsch worked as an assistant.

However, the MCI crowds have branded Darsch, who similarly benched Holdsclaw in the second half of the regular-season finale last year, as the heavy, sporadically booing her and brandishing signs reading: "We need a coach. Not Nancy."

"Things were said, and we've got to move forward," Holdsclaw said. "I'm here to play basketball, not to be controversial. And Coach Darsch is not here to be controversial, but to be professional. We know we want the same thing, and that's to win."

Even with the losing at home, and the controversy, the Mystics (8-7) are tied for second in the eight-team Eastern Conference and have taken the first two games of their current five-game road trip, beating Eastern cellar-dweller Charlotte and expansionist Seattle. They play tomorrow in Los Angeles.

"We just have to get a winning streak on the road and bring it back here," McCray said. "Teams are starting to make a run, and when we come back off the road, we'll be halfway through our season. Where are we going to be?"

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