- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2002

As a rule, Washington Mystics forward Murriel Page does not check the WNBA standings. Still, she has an inkling that the struggling Mystics' hold on the top spot in the Eastern Conference is dwindling not because she hears footsteps, but because she hears taunts.

"A lot of us have friends on the other teams and, of course, if your friend is breathing down your back, they're going to let you know," Page said. "Sometimes it's not even friends on other teams. I have friends that like New York or who are fans of Orlando that'll call me and say, 'Hey, your girl is breathing down your neck.'"

All that heavy panting should warn the Mystics (15-9) that there is hardly any time to catch their breath, not even with forward Chamique Holdsclaw back from her high ankle sprain. Washington, which has lost three straight and four of its last five, leads second-place New York by just a half-game. Charlotte is just 1-1/2; games back.

Washington was caught exhaling a collective sigh of relief upon Holdsclaw's return Saturday as Seattle defeated the complacent Mystics 80-71. Holdsclaw scored a career-high 32 points, but no teammate reached double figures.

Worse, Washington lacked the defensive intensity that had helped it to a respectable 5-4 record in Holdsclaw's absence. The Storm ended the game on a 21-5 run as the Mystics simply could not stop Seattle's explosive tandem of Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson.

The Mystics spent much of yesterday's practice working on transition defense. Coach Marianne Stanley wants more defenders sprinting back to help out.

"We've been talking about playing without Chamique for games and games and games," Stanley said. "It required so much emotional, physical and mental energy, maybe this is the downside to that. It's just a natural thing. We had a giddy little time while she was gone. Here's the hangover."

Few players have been immune from the sluggish spell. After a red-hot start to the season that earned her a trip to the All-Star Game, forward Stacey Dales-Schuman has cooled off. Dales-Schuman is the team's second leading scorer after Holdsclaw but hasn't matched her average (11.2) in five games.

"She's had a little trouble with aggressiveness, with her energy level," Stanley said. "I think she's frustrated right now. My attitude is, if the shot's not falling, find another way to contribute. That's not the only way to contribute. She's one of our best screeners. Be a great screener. Get somebody else free."

Shooting guard Coco Miller missed a pair of open layups Saturday and finished with just two points in 21 minutes. She is 10-for-35 from the field over her last four games.

"In Coco's case, she's been catching and dribbling without ever really reading the defense," Stanley said. "You don't need to dribble anywhere if you have a wide-open shot when you catch it."

If anything, Stanley said, the Mystics are trying too hard to compensate for their recent struggles.

"You just have to play. If you think you're not going to make mistakes, you're dreamin'," she said. "By the same token, if you do make one, don't carry it around like an albatross. Now you're a pack mule instead of a thoroughbred."

Which wouldn't bode well now that the WNBA race has entered the homestretch.

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