With a new coach and some new players, including top draft pick Chamique Holdsclaw, the Washington Mystics open their second season tonight against the Charlotte Sting at MCI Center in a game that they see as a new beginning for the team that finished 3-27 last season.

Coach Nancy Darsch and Holdsclaw, who led the University of Tennessee to three consecutive NCAA championships and is regarded as perhaps the best women's basketball player, are among the new faces for the Mystics. What apparently hasn't changed is fan support -- the Mystics led the league in attendance last season, averaging 15,900 per game despite having the worst record in the WNBA, and tonight's game is nearly sold out.

Holdsclaw played before more than 17,000 raucous fans per game at Tennessee, and said she is looking forward to the Washington crowds.

"They said these fans are die-hard fans and kind of cheer to the end," Holdsclaw said. "It's great to see people supporting this team and women's basketball."

Fewer than 1,500 tickets were available yesterday for the 20,674-seat arena. Among those expected to attend the home opener are D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams and his wife, Diane, and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, a season ticket holder. Of the ticket buyers, about 6,500 are season ticket holders, 300 fewer than the 6,800 at the start of last season, team spokeswoman Julie Demeo said. More than 500 people have bought the six-game weekend plan that ranges in price from $48 to $90, she said.

The Mystics won two of three preseason games, including a victory over the two-time defending champion Houston Comets. They'll meet the Comets again in a nationally televised contest on Saturday in Houston.

"I think even though we beat Houston in the preseason, [tonight's] game is even more important because that's going to set the tone," said guard Nikki McCray, who led the team in scoring last season.

McCray and Holdsclaw will start tonight, along with point guard Andrea Nagy. Shalonda Enis, a 6-foot-1 forward-center, likely will be the fourth starter. The fifth spot will go to 6-2 forward Murriel Page or 6-5 center Alessandra Santos de Oliveira. The Mystics yesterday cut two players -- forward Joy Holmes and guard Rhonda Blades -- and put center Heather Owen (shoulder) on the injured list to meet the required 11-player limit.

Charlotte made the playoffs the past two seasons and is favored to win the Eastern Conference title. The Sting, which reached the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Houston last season, returns four key veterans: guard Andrea Stinson, center Rhonda Mapp, and forwards Tracy Reid and Vicky Bullett, a former University of Maryland standout.

The Sting also drafted veteran point guard Dawn Staley, who played in the now-defunct ABL and was a member of the 1996 team that won the Olympic gold medal.

Reid, the rookie of the year last season, is expected to miss tonight's game because of a strained right knee. Rookie Stephanie McCarty, of last season's NCAA champion Purdue, likely will replace her in the starting lineup.

"To open up against Charlotte, who is [the] favorite for the Eastern title, it's big," McCray said. "If we win that game, that would instill a lot of confidence in us and send a message around the league that, `Hey, the Washington Mystics are ready to play.' "

Darsch, who coached the New York Liberty the past two seasons before she was fired, also will be making her regular season debut with the Mystics. She missed two of the team's preseason games because of the death of her mother.

"We're going to be a fighting team," she said. "We're going to be a competitive team. We're not going to be a team that runs away from any kind of challenge because this whole season will be challenge after challenge after challenge. . . . If we will play defense, if we will run the ball, if we will share the ball, then we can be successful."

Mystics Notes: Before tonight's game, four women who have contributed to the promotion of women's sports will receive awards: 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes of Silver Spring, Women's Sports Foundation officials Donna de Varona and Lillian Green-Chamberlain, and Robin Roberts, ESPN "SportsCenter" anchor and women's basketball commentator.

Mystics Open 1999 Season

What: vs. Charlotte Sting.

Where: MCI Center.

When: 7 p.m.

Tickets: Available.

Radio: WGAY-1260.

Injuries: Mystics C Heather Owen (shoulder) is on the injured list. Sting G Christy Smith (ankle and wrist) and C Nevriye Yilmaz (thumb and hamstring) are on the injured list.

CAPTION: Mystics' top pick Chamique Holdsclaw signed autographs after Monday's practice. The team expects a sellout for tonight's opener against Charlotte.