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Patriots expect tougher time stopping Foster

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Patriots expect tougher time stopping Foster

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) The New England Patriots found a way to turn Arian Foster from punishing runner into powerless bystander.

All they did was charge to a 28-0 lead, make the Houston Texans throw and keep the ball away from one of the most dangerous rushers in the NFL.

A month ago, the Patriots scored touchdowns on their first three possessions and routed the Texans, 42-14, as Foster gained just 46 yards on 15 carries.

Vince Wilfork, though, figures on a tougher challenge in Sunday's rematch on the same field in a divisional playoff game.

``I expect to see the best,'' the Patriots defensive tackle said Tuesday.

Something, perhaps, like Foster's brilliant performance in Saturday's 19-13 wild-card win over the Cincinnati Bengals - 140 yards on a season-high 32 carries, to go with eight catches for 34 yards and the game's only offensive touchdown.

That made him the first NFL player to rush for at least 100 yards in each of his first three playoff games.

Not bad.

``Last week, you saw why this guy is one of the top offensive players in the game, not just a back, but a top offensive player in the game,'' a rested Wilfork said after the team's bye week. ``The things that he can do with the ball in his hands, in the pass game and running it ... and he's a great blocker when they ask him to block. I mean he's a special player and we understand that.''

If he gets a chance to show it. He didn't on Dec. 10 at Gillette Stadium.

Foster rushed 12 times for 44 yards in the first half, which ended with the Patriots leading, 21-0. He had just three carries for two yards after that - and none after he scored on a 1-yard run with 6:12 left in the third quarter - as the Texans tried to preserve time by throwing the ball.

But New England (12-4) knew they would have to focus on that.

``Any time that you can get a team one-dimensional, that's a big plus. Every team tries to do that,'' Wilfork said. ``It just bottles up a bunch of things ... knowing when you can expect the pass, you can expect this and you can expect that.

``But when a team is on track and when they are running the ball good, and throwing the ball good, and the play action is good, and the special teams are good, it's tough.''

The Texans (13-4) can be dangerous when they go to play-action, as well, faking a handoff and then throwing. The Patriots know they can't fall for it and leave a receiver open while going after a runner who doesn't have the ball.

They must be disciplined.

``Just fundamentals. Just read your keys and just pay attention,'' linebacker Brandon Spikes said. ``Everybody has a job and my job is to pay attention to the run.''

That means focus on Foster.

He was sixth in the NFL with 1,424 yards rushing and eighth in yards from scrimmage with 1,641. He also was the leading scorer among non-kickers with 102 points - posting 15 rushing touchdowns as well as two on receptions.

``That was really a great example this past weekend of how they like to play football down there - be physical, be aggressive, run the ball, control the clock and really just do a good job of just handling the game,'' Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said. ``The run game going the way they have it going, obviously it sets up the play-action pass game.''

For Wilfork, a key is recognizing when Houston's offensive linemen use cut blocks.

``That running back sees it and he hits it right off that cut block. So, up front it's going to be very important for us to try to stay on our feet,'' he said. ``Any team that runs the ball the way they run the ball and has the play-action and the bootlegs and all the stuff that comes after that, it's a big challenge for us.

``But we've faced it.''

The Patriots, the NFL's highest scoring team, will need their usual productive offensive game to offset that and force the Texans to throw.

They've already done it once, right?

``They didn't play their best game. They know that and we know that,'' Wilfork said. ``It starts with their running game. It starts with Foster. The more touches that he gets, in the passing game or on the ground, the better that team is.''

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A missed timeout baffles Aces coach Bill Laimbeer, helps Mystics hold on for Game 1 win

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A missed timeout baffles Aces coach Bill Laimbeer, helps Mystics hold on for Game 1 win

Las Vegas Aces coach Bill Laimbeer is hard to miss at 6-foot-11 with a booming voice that with its deep timber can level anyone standing within 100 feet. 

But as his underdog team pushed the ball up court in the frantic closing seconds of Tuesday’s WNBA semifinal game against the Mystics, Laimbeer might as well have been an invisible ghost. 

With Washington ahead 97-95, an Elena Delle Donne miss with 4.5 seconds to play gave the Aces a chance. Laimbeer wanted a timeout to set a play. He didn’t get it. He screamed again. No whistle. Maybe the roaring crowd at the Entertainment and Sports Arena drowned out Laimbeer's furious pleading. Whatever the case, referee Tiara Cruse didn’t grant it and Kelsey Plum’s rushed floater at the buzzer missed.

The favored Mystics, the top seed in the WNBA playoffs after a 26-8 regular season, held on for a win on a night when they were admittedly far from their best. The Aces were left pondering what might have been if they could have just set up a final a play. Washington took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series with Game 2 set for Thursday in the District. 

“I was right standing next to the referee by design. As soon as they missed a shot I was going to be yelling “Timeout! Timeout! Timeout!”,” Laimbeer said. “They missed the shot, we got the rebound. I yelled it five times and she even looked at me when I was yelling and made a conscious decision not to call a timeout.”

Laimbeer said he expected an investigation of some sort by the WNBA. He wasn’t as concerned with the non-call on Plum at the end. That’s a bang-bang play that could go either way and referees are reluctant to whistle anyway. But he also said the ESPN television broadcast will show without a doubt that he requested a timeout. It was a tough way to lose. 

“It’s unfortunate,” Laimbeer said. “It didn’t cost us the game. But it cost us a good shot.”

Even Mystics players like guard Kristi Toliver admitted they heard the timeout call and were surprised play wasn’t stopped. Las Vegas' players were thinking more about the possessions before the final one when they had chances to tie a game they played well enough to win.  

“I think it really just started not even with the non-foul call, but with us not calling a timeout and being aware in that situation,” Aces forward A’ja Wilson said. “It really just comes to that it wasn’t just that. It was the plays and the turnovers that we had and the rebounds that we missed all added up to that. We can’t really fault the refs. It really comes from us.”

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Mystics squeak by Aces in last-second thriller to earn Game 1 victory

Mystics squeak by Aces in last-second thriller to earn Game 1 victory

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Mystics beat the Las Vegas Aces 97-95 in Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals on Tuesday night. Here are five observations from the game...

1. The Mystics took Step 1 towards what they hope is the first championship in franchise history on Tuesday night, as they held off an Aces team with the size and athleticism to put up a real fight. But Washington's outside shooting and ability to limit mistakes proved too much in the first of a five-game series. 

The Mystics made 11 threes compared to the Aces' seven and committed only four turnovers while Las Vegas coughed up 13 of them. Emma Meesseman led the way with 27 points and 10 rebounds, shooting a crisp 12-for-18 from the field. Elena Delle Donne was next with 24 points, six boards and six assists. Natasha Cloud (12 points) was the only other Mystic in double-figures. 

Delle Donne made the game-sealing shot, a turnaround fadeaway with 32 seconds to go. That put the Mystics up by four and the Aces couldn't close the gap.

2. Despite having a nine-day layoff between games, it was the Mystics who came out sharp. They made six of their first 10 shots and led 21-10 with just over three minutes to go in the first quarter.

The Aces had played just two days before, yet they took several minutes to get adjusted. The Mystics' quickness gave them trouble, especially on defense where they caught Aces center Liz Cambage (19 points, 12 rebounds) sleeping on a pair of turnovers in the post.

It didn't last long, however. The Aces sped up and got going on the fastbreak. By the end of the first quarter, they were within three points. Though they attempted 13 fewer shots in the first than the Mystics did, they made 73.3 percent of their looks.

3. Speed was the key in Las Vegas' best stretches. In the second quarter, they pushed the pace to outscore Washington 30-20. Kelsey Plum (16 points, nine assists, seven rebounds), the 2018 first overall pick, lit the spark. She made the Mystics pay for not getting back on defense by creating quick opportunities off made baskets. 

The Aces were able to turn up the speed when they went small in the second quarter, with the 6-foot-8 Cambage on the bench. A'ja Wilson went to work, scoring eight of her 23 points in the second quarter.

4. Hurting the Mystics in the speed department was the knee injury to All-Star guard Kristi Tolliver. She played for the first time since Aug. 8 and had some rust to shake off. 

She wasn't limping, but didn't have her usual quickness. And it seemed like her insertion into the lineup affected the Mystics' rhythm early on, as they hadn't played with her in six weeks. They went 10-1 while she was out, making it a delicate task to bring her back and not disrupt a smooth operation.

From the looks of Tolliver on Tuesday night, it seems like she could be dealing with the injury throughout the playoffs. To remain effective, she will have to lean on her accurate outside shooting and abilities as a distributor. 

By the fourth quarter, she did just that. Tolliver got a pair of threes to fall and finished with eight points and four assists in 23 minutes.

5. The Mystics had a lot of support in Game 1. It was a big, energetic crowd that featured a host of their Wizards counterparts. John Wall, Rui Hachimura, Isaiah Thomas, Ish Smith, Thomas Bryant and Justin Robinson were among the players in attendance. General manager Tommy Sheppard was there along with executives Sashi Brown and John Thompson III. 

Ted Leonsis wants to see more synergy between his teams under the Monumental Basketball umbrella. Tuesday night was a good example.

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