The euphoria of playing a relatively close game before a sellout crowd against perhaps the best team in the WNBA's Eastern Division began to wear off for the Washington Mystics with about nine minutes left last night -- just as they watched the Charlotte Sting turn a tie game into a double-digit lead.

In the end, the excitement of the start of the Mystics' second season was tinged with disappointment when Charlotte took an 83-73 victory before 20,674 at MCI Center to hand Washington a loss in its season opener for the second year in a row.

The game had several highlights: the debut of No. 1 draft pick Chamique Holdsclaw, a franchise-record 12 assists for newcomer Andrea Nagy and the pregame hanging of the Mystics' banner for leading the league in attendance last season. But an 18-4 run in the second half and a zone defense that forced Washington to shoot from outside ended the Mystics' chances for a victory.

"I think losing is always disheartening," first-year Mystics coach Nancy Darsch said. "When you [play] your first home game, especially after winning two preseason games, and the crowd is so into it, you really want to come out and send a message. We almost did that, but we fell short of that.

"I think several of our players looked a little bit tight. I can't say that Chamique was, but I know we weren't normal. We weren't aggressive. When you let the other team be the aggressor, you aren't going to do very well."

The strong play of former University of Virginia star Dawn Staley negated the performances of Nikki McCray (22 points) and Holdsclaw (18 points, six rebounds). Staley had 23 points and seven assists and helped get Washington point guards Nagy and Rita Williams into early foul trouble. Staley dominated both players with an assortment of mid-range jump shots, driving layups and three-pointers. She committed just one turnover.

The Mystics didn't help their cause, however, making only 4 of 18 three-pointers and committing 15 turnovers to Charlotte's nine.

McCray followed a miss by Shalonda Enis to tie the score at 63 with 9 minutes 16 seconds left in the game. After that, rookie Stephanie McCarty converted a driving three-point play that started the 18-4 run. The play of McCarty and Staley, combined with the Sting's stifling zone defense, was too much for the Mystics to overcome, especially when they faced an 81-67 deficit with 2:28 left.

"I think that [the zone] makes you think," Charlotte Coach Marynell Meadors said. "If you make them think, there's more of a chance for them to make mistakes."

Those nine minutes of the second half were compounded by the fact that Holdsclaw and McCray were not on the court for many of the game's most important times. Holdsclaw sat out with cramps from the 12:42 mark until 7:47 remained. McCray was on the bench resting, beginning with 7:47 left in the game until the 3:07 point.

"We had some tough times," Darsch said. "I think we had a media timeout coming right about the time I was thinking about calling a timeout. Looking back, I probably could have taken one on one or two of those earlier possessions."

However, the Mystics did take something positive out of the loss.

"The good thing is we had a chance to win this game against the best team in the East," McCray said. "Tonight was definitely an eye-opener, because we now know what we need to do to win."

The Mystics' weak finish negated a first-half rally in which they overcame a 10-point deficit.

Washington started the game with nine turnovers in the first 11 minutes. Those struggles coincided with a time when Holdsclaw and McCray were the only Mystics able to score -- the former University of Tennessee players combined for Washington's first 12 points.

But when the Mystics became more balanced and eliminated turnovers, the momentum swung in their direction. They turned a 24-14 Charlotte lead into a 36-34 Washington advantage at halftime.

"That doesn't really matter," Enis said, "because we have to be more consistent and stick to our game plan. As for our defense, you can't just play for a half, and on offense you have to run the play. We didn't do that the whole game.

"We were all nervous early on. I know I was like a zombie out there. Now that we've got this behind us, we should play better. It will be all good."

CAPTION: Said Mystics Coach Nancy Darsch: "Losing is always disheartening. . . . We weren't aggressive."

CAPTION: Sting's Dawn Staley checks Andrea Nagy; Staley, a star in the defunct ABL, scored 23 points in her WNBA debut.