The Washington Mystics managed to find solace in Thursday night's 83-73 loss to the Charlotte Sting, and the Mystics hope to turn that solace into their first victory as they head into tonight's game at Houston against the Comets, the top team in the Western Conference.

The Mystics (0-1) gained optimism from the several opportunities they had to defeat the Sting (1-0), considered by many the top team in the Eastern Conference. But the Comets, who have won both WNBA championship titles, will be a big challenge for the Mystics, who defeated Houston by four points in a preseason game last week.

A second consecutive defeat for Washington, especially before a national television audience, could dampen its optimism.

"It's important to win every game, but Houston is going to be a very difficult situation for us," Mystics first-year coach Nancy Darsch said. "They're two-time defending champs, and they'll be raising the banner and giving out rings. It's going to be a different environment for us, but it's going to be a good lesson for us.

"It will certainly be more crowded and more volatile than Knoxville or Salt Lake City were. This is a young team. We have to learn lessons, and we have to take some things from [Thursday night] and do them better on Saturday."

The Mystics, who played Thursday before an announced sellout crowd at MCI Center, must improve defensively, especially since they will be facing perhaps the most dangerous tandem in the WNBA. Guards Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes are the main reason the Comets (1-0) have dominated the league. Washington forced Cooper into a 1-for-14 shooting night last week, but Swoopes dominated Mystics stars Chamique Holdsclaw and Nikki McCray to score 30 points.

"There's always reason for concern" on defense, Darsch said. "We have to be mentally tougher and get stops. We have to find our legs and sprint to that [scoring] person, especially if they've already hit some shots. We have to be stronger defensively and mentally."

Team cohesiveness is also a concern for the Mystics. At times Thursday, they struggled to play together and frequently did not run plays during offensive possessions.

"It's been a challenging time," Darsch said. "Our team has been sluggish in practice since we got back from Salt Lake City [last week], and I think we showed that at times [Thursday]. But again, I think that when we ran the ball, we were a much different team."

The Mystics may try to outrun Houston tonight. The Comets are without starting point guard Kim Perrot, the key to the team's transition offense last season, who has brain cancer.

Washington out-rebounded Charlotte, 39-27, but Houston's lineup is imposing. In addition to Swoopes and Cooper, Houston has post player Tina Thompson (6 feet 2) and reserve Kara Wolters (6-7). That means 6-5 Washington reserve Jennifer Whittle, who did not play Thursday, should get some playing time against Houston.

Overall, Darsch said, the Mystics merely need some experience.

"We are behind in that category," Darsch said. "I think we're still looking for a team personality and identity. But it's very early and this is a very young team. We are a little bit behind where we ought to be, but we need to take this game and build on it. We've got two very tough road games coming up, and when we take the court here next week, we need to be a different team."

Data: Mystics at Houston Comets, 4 p.m.

TV: WRC-4, WBAL-11.

Radio: WWRC-570.

Records: Mystics 0-1; Comets 1-0.